Review: How Defying Gravity succeeds where Virtuality failed

A couple of months ago, Fox premiered a failed pilot called Virtuality about 12 astronauts on a mysterious 10-year mission. That ambitious pilot may well have worked its way into becoming something quite fascinating, given time. However, ABC's Defying Gravity succeeds in a one-hour pilot with what Virtuality failed to achieve in its two-hour pilot.

Like Virtuality, this Canadian/German/American production has an intriguing mystery at its core. But it also has complex but likable characters. Defying Gravity's two-hour premiere airs on Sunday, Aug. 2, at 9 p.m., with the series settling into its regular timeslot at 10 p.m. a week later.

Set in the near future, the series opens with a six-year mission on the Antares about to launch to seven planets with eight astronauts. Seasoned astronaut Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston) has been passed over for the new mission to Venus and several other planets, along with mission commander Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba). The two are still haunted by a decision years earlier to leave two astronauts behind to die on Mars in order to save that mission.

The story shifts back and forth between the astronauts readying themselves for their trip through the solar system and flashbacks involving the selection and training process. When they take off, Maddux and Ted are not aboard. However, strange things begin to happen almost immediately. With little time to meet the short launch window, decisions are made on the ground that affect every member of the Antares crew. But the powers that be on the ground know something the astronauts don't, and it involves what's in the cargo hold of the Antares.

Created by James Parriott, Defying Gravity was inspired by Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, which was produced for the BBC. Parriott manages to draw us in quickly with Lost-style flashbacks that enlighten present events. The well-written pilot poses plenty of questions for the series to answer.

The second episode, "Natural Selection," airs immediately after the pilot and continues the mythology of the series. However, the episode also has an enclosed story, which is the best kind of storytelling.

The story is made all the more accessible by the appealing cast, which includes Livingston, Yoba, Laura Harris as Zoe Barnes and Christina Cox as Jen Crane. Because we like the actors, we care what happens to these astronauts.

Still, the really interesting element is that the special effects are just as dramatic in the second episode as they are in the first, implying that this Defying Gravity is not going to skimp on the good stuff. It's a series that feels like it's taking place in outer space, and that's just cool.

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