A couple of weeks ago, geeks in America filled theaters and gave Iron Man 3 the second-biggest opening weekend in movie history. But not me. I don’t need to leave the house to find a smart-ass adventurer in a flying machine who saves his plucky female companion (and the world) from evildoers. I have Doctor Who for that. In fact, Geek TV — currently as crowded with swords, spaceships, and superheroes as the multiplexes — has been scratching my genre itch of late, with entertainment that nearly equals the transporting power of cinema.
That’s right: nearly. Lacking blockbuster budgets, Geek TV doesn’t match the spectacle of movies, thus limiting the authenticity of its far-flung worlds. Genre fans can forgive the chintz — and even be charmed by it (think: Buffy the Vampire Slayer) — if everything else is top-notch. It’s a lesson not yet learned by Starz’s historical fantasy Da Vinci’s Demons, which is damnably mediocre. Demons reformulates the Italian polymath as a Renaissance-era Tony Stark, a scoundrel-sexy armaments auteur (Tom Riley). It wants to be edgy adult-comics fun, but its cheap evocation of 15th-century Florence discourages investment and accentuates other deficits, like rote characters, familiar intrigues, murky mythology, and an immature treatment of ”mature” elements. High concept undercut by flaccid execution, Demons isn’t worth a Mona Lisa smirk.
By contrast, Syfy’s Defiance works overtime to wow viewers. This near-future allegory envisions an Earth under reconstruction in the aftermath of humankind’s ill-fated contact with extraterrestrials, a conflict that gave the planet a makeover. New environments. New wildlife. New races. As soldier-turned-drifter Nolan, who becomes the ”Lawkeeper” of old St. Louis, Ugly Betty‘s Grant Bowler is serviceably rakish and sturdy. But his chemistry with Stephanie Leonidas — breakout good as Nolan’s strong, strange, emotionally raw, adopted alien daughter — is genuinely affecting.
Defiance is beholden to some dusty tropes of postapocalyptic sci-fi, like the Firefly neo-pioneer aesthetic and the Road Warrior band of amoral biker gypsies. The individual alien races aren’t all that fresh. Yet I am engaged by the show’s lively metaphor for a polyglot culture fractured by tribalism and Otherness, for a world that can easily put aside past pain and present differences to tackle a common threat — and then pick them right back up when the fighting’s done. Defiance implicitly asks a timely question: What ever happened to our Star Trek future?
If you like your Geek TV a little less heavy, BBC America’s Doctor Who is blissfully carefree. The British import — which wraps its third season under writer Steven Moffat (Sherlock) on May 18 — remains a riot of witty weirdness: how I loved Diana Rigg as a 19th-century doomsday zealot married to a primordial parasitical scallop latched to her bosom. (Amazing how Who goes from silly to spectacular in an hour.) As the titular Time Lord, Matt Smith has an unflagging energy that makes him the most flat-out funny hero in geek pop. Moffat has spun more compelling story lines than just the Doctor’s quest to crack the (reincarnation?) riddle of his companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), but I totally understand his fixation on the gal, as Coleman brings out the romantic in Smith and has a knack for banter.
Doctor Who is proof that inventive writing and inspired acting can not only help Geek TV transcend production values but also render them irrelevant. Even stronger proof is network sibling Orphan Black. There’s no better special effect on television right now than Tatiana Maslany playing a variety of clones: Sarah, an English punk who hijacked the identity of another doppelgänger; Beth, a deceased cop; Helena, a Ukrainian assassin; Alison, a mousy American housewife; and Cosima, a saucy college student. Most are working together to solve the mystery of their existence. Early episodes were taut thrillers, while recent episodes have deepened the characters and dialed up the humor without subverting the tension. Slowly, a smartly constructed epic is taking shape. Orphan Black is a show that — like that nerdy wonder Game of Thrones — defies any genre label, save Really Cool Original Stuff. Which, for me, is the true definition of Geek TV. Da Vinci’s Demons: C- Defiance: B+ Doctor Who: A- Orphan Black: A