“Defying Gravity” telegraphs its aspirations in terms of commercial longevity — a six-year (God willing) space mission — but otherwise holds its cards close to its spacesuit. Frequently flashing back to build a soap opera around its sci-fi skeleton, this international co-production proves mildly intriguing and looks reasonably handsome but divulges only vague hints regarding its ultimate destination during the two-hour premiere. As a consequence, the storytelling needs to pick up momentum quickly if the show expects an audience to tag along on its planned journey to Venus and beyond.
Ron Livingston heads the international cast as Maddux Donner, an astronaut forced to strand two companions on Mars in 2042. A decade later, he’s haunted by this history as he trains a next generation of explorers for the spacecraft Antares’ ambitious multitrillion-dollar, seven-planet voyage.
One needn’t be an astrophysicist to ascertain that the worm will turn in a manner that places Donner on the crew. The main wrinkle is the mission command team’s reference to “it” having chosen him and his co-commander (“New York Undercover’s” Malik Yoba), with no explanation yet as to what “it” might be.
Presumably that means an alien intelligence, but series creator James Parriott (“Forever Knight”) seems more preoccupied initially with interpersonal dynamics as they pertain to Donner, geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox) and so on. He also has some fun with alternate visions of the future, like casual references to abortion being illegal.
“Gravity” has its share of cultural ancestors. Aside from perhaps inadvertently borrowing its title from a “Wicked” tune, the press materials say the series was inspired by a British format (“Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets”), but it also bears a resemblance to “Earth Star Voyager” — a 1988 ABC miniseries — and even “2010.”
On the plus side, the set design is sleek and convincing, apparently benefiting from the cost-sharing contributions of U.S., German, Canadian and British partners. Livingston possesses a nice tormented tough-guy quality, and the mystery seems rife with possibilities (as well as pitfalls). Donner’s heavy-handed voiceover narration, by contrast, should be ruthlessly jettisoned out the airlock.
All told, there’s still plenty here to hold an audience through the first two hours. Fulfilling that six-year charter, however, will depend on exhibiting a clearer directional sense, because in both TV and space, gravity can be a real bitch.