Tom Shales Previews 'Defying Gravity,' Premiering on ABC

Ron Livingston and Malik Yoba in the new ABC drama about space travel.
Ron Livingston and Malik Yoba in the new ABC drama about space travel. (By Sergei Bachlakov -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

"In space, there's simply no room for error," barks a mid-21st-century astronaut stomping around his spaceship in ABC's new sci-fi series, "Defying Gravity." In television, of course, there is plenty of room for error; sometimes it seems like one big errormobile.

Unfortunately, "Defying Gravity" will have to be listed as one of its well-intentioned mistakes, another of the many peculiar oddities churned out by broadcast and cable every year, every week, every moment of our earthbound little lives. While "Defying Gravity" might be a good title for a sitcom set in outer space, the gravity being defied here is of a more sober, serious, scientific sort.

At least the series makes an attempt to correct the estimates of space breakthroughs projected in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke foresaw humans larking about the universe willy-nilly no later than the turn of the century. And there was that big spooky mission to "Jupiter . . . and beyond," remember? Zero-gravity toilets had been invented but somehow communism had survived.

It isn't made terribly clear, at least not in the first episode, what kind of planet Earth has become by the time "Defying Gravity" occurs. In fact, it isn't clear what time "Defying Gravity" does occur. As the series begins, we don't know when it is, but soon there's a caption on the screen that says "2042 -- 10 Years Earlier -- Mars." Ten years earlier than what? Never mind, because by the next commercial break it's "5 Years Earlier" than 10 Years Earlier. It begins to seem like a game. Or a twist on that backward episode of "Seinfeld" when the mission's destination was merely India.

Space travel can't be all that common by 2042 or even 2052, because the crew of the big ship spend a lot of time talking about it. "Space travel is a fool's game," someone says, twice, followed by a meditation on how much water is being toted around in your typical human body (we're 60 percent water, a scientist says). "Being an astronaut is all about control," one space ranger philosophizes.

"Man belongs in space," another crew member pipes up. "We're resilient; we can adapt," says somebody else or maybe the same one. "I've never felt more alive or more human," says an astronaut as the crew settles down for a long trip to Venus that is also apparently going to be a six-year "grand tour of the solar system."

It's all terribly confusing, but then quite a bit of sci-fi gets by on passing off the terribly confusing as profoundly mysterious.

The unfortunate truth of this mission is that you're going to need a whole lot of patience to get through even the first hour of it. Things do seem to be happening: One crew member's vasectomy is reversing on its own ("bit of a sticky wicket," as the British used to say); two potential crew members must report for physicals when large amounts of "calcified plaque" turn up inside them; one astronaut has to improvise an EVA (that's extra-vehicular activity, as those of us who remember the '60s will know) to save the ship, and an astronaut says she got pregnant from a one-night stand, but just how long are the nights out there in Spaceville?

Some of the special effects are beautiful and seem lavish for television, but as the movies of the past couple decades have shown, jim-dandy special effects can take you only so far, and now that TV shows are as special-effected as commercials have been almost since TV began, audiences have every reason to be jaded about them. The story has to be strong, and "Defying Gravity's" isn't.

There are no monsters, at least on the premiere, and that's disappointing. Then again, considering all the sex talk, there might be some of those "monsters from the id" that Professor Morbius talked about in "Forbidden Planet." That was the big, wide, scary one from MGM that gave us Robby the Robot -- way back in 1956. "Defying Gravity" takes us not back to the future so much as forward to the past, and it takes its old sweet time about it, too.

Defying Gravity (two hours) premieres Saturday night at 9 on ABC.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company