Defying Gravity — Eps 1-8

I’m really enjoying this show. Diverse cast — Ajay Sharma is my present geek-crush — and vaguely feminist overtones make this series one to keep an eye on. Unfortunately, the pacing and characterization of the female characters is incredibly uneven, and the show itself MIGHT be in danger of cancellation. :(

The basic premise is that the best of the best of an international coterie of astronauts have been selected to go on a five year journey around the solar system. THERE’S A MYSTERY IN POD FOUR, which our astronauts don’t know about, but which has our folks in Ground Control all in a tizzy. This mystery has been manipulating the crew, altering their bodies, and making them have hallucinations. They also all have tangled romantic histories with each other, which is one of the reasons this show has been called Grey’s Anatomy IN SPACE. Also, we are in a strange America where women — GASP! — no longer have the right to choose, and have no bodily privacy in regards to their fertility. What a strange and unfamiliar world. I mean, seriously, I can’t imagine the feds giving money to science, of all things.

I want to begin by talking about the secondary and tertiary characters I love. These ladies  have so far emerged as fascinating, potentially complex, conflicted professionals. These characters include…

1. Eve Weller-Shaw, who has a lot of secrets, particularly about the space program. She’s kept them from Ted, her husband, who’s now the mission’s captain, and has been using their relationship to keep him in compliance with the mission. While so far she’s been portrayed as conflicted and big eyed, the fact that she’s got a higher security clearance than anyone else we’ve met so far, isn’t afraid to use it, AND willingly sent her husband into a spaceship containing an unknown alien device suggest she’s going to be a cool character. Potential downers: she might turn into a caricature of a “bad wife.” So far she’s not a villainess, but she’s not exactly a fan favorite either. Also: she’s the only other black person on the show… so even though Ted dated Jen, a white woman, before he and Eve got together, it’s pretty clear there’s some Noah’s Ark two-by-two matching going on there.

2. Nadia Schilling, who is a pilot and is friends with benefits with Maddux Donnor, our tragic American hero. While she’s not the most professional of characters (she keeps trying to hit on Maddux while they’re supposed to be working), I appreciate that she’s really happy being his friend with benefits, and doesn’t really want to be more. She says as much to Zoe, but Zoe, of course, is still mad at her. I hate Zoe, so that just makes me like Nadia even more, especially because she’s funny. Potential downers: Zoe, who is a whinier reincarnation of Kara Thrace, doesn’t like her because she’s screwing Maddux. The show’s writing keeps scripting her as a Mean Girl picking on poor Zoe. Also: she hasn’t actually piloted the ship on-screen.

3. Jen Crane, who is the ship’s biologist. I like her because she’s a nerd, she encouraged her friend to get an abortion, she helped her friend find a doctor to get that abortion done safely, AND she’s portrayed as a character whose reproductive desires change logically in response to her life circumstances. She does want a kid now, because she’s with a man she loves and is established professionally. I think that’s a more complex attitude towards women’s right to choose than is typically seen in SF. Potential downers: She’s keeping a baby rabbit in defiance of mission protocol — she’s just supposed to experiment on the fetuses, then abort them. I’m not sure why she’s keeping this one, but I’m hoping she’s not going mad about babies.

4. Paula Morales, who is EASILY my favorite character. She’s like a fictional Jose Hernandez — she’s a pilot, the payload specialist, and the face of the mission, since she’s the one documenting it for her online class on Earth. Seriously? Even when the other crew members mock her, she insists on the importance of her job.  In a nice parallel to real-life Latinos in space, her role as publicity/ human connection establisher is unacknowldged, even though it’s this human connection that helps keep them funded. Also, the growing relationship between her and Wass fits into her character arc. He’s a jerk, but she’s a kind person, so she’s willing to get to know him. Also, this is being handled in such a way that it  doesn’t (yet?) detract from the gradual unveiling of her actual professional role. Also, if this romance actually materializes, it’ll nicely counteract what I’m seeing as the very two-by-two nature of dating in this series, since so far all the couples formed “match” racially. Potential downers: So far she’s the face of anti-abortion sentiment. Way to displace misogyny onto a marginalized, racialized, gendered body.

I like these four women a lot. They’re really the reason I keep watching. Now, I’d like to talk about Zoe.

Like I mentioned above, Zoe, like Kara Thrace, is blonde and has a destiny. However, unlike Starbuck, she’s only characterized in relation to the male characters, particular Maddux Donnor, with whom she’s got a romantic past. The first eight episodes of this series dealt with abortion (or at least keeping a baby) — this familiar not-America makes explicit the pressures facing a woman when she’s unfortunate enough to face an unwanted pregnancy. The issue of Zoe’s abortion — and the kind of options women have in regards to their reproductive freedome — acts as one of the foundational questions of the show. What I like about this is that it is surprisingly nuanced. While Zoe has dreams about crying babies, and had a traumatic abortion, she’s not presented as longing for a child. She regrets the kind of choice she made, but acknowledges that it was her choice. This is conveyed in an especially poignant scene in “Bacon,” where Zoe looks over images of a friend of hers who was also in the space program but had to leave due to an unplanned pregnancy. This friend’s daughter is now six; her mother is a happy, successful doctor. While Zoe is looking at the kid’s pictures, Zoe’s friend is looking at pictures Zoe has sent her of the spaceship. These images include Zoe demonstrating the effects of zero-gravity on hair, working with Jen in the botany lab, and in general having the kind of space adventure every admitted student to this program wanted to have. There’s a lot of regret in this scene, but no blame. There’s also a lot of happiness — while Zoe and her friend are both sad about the might-have-beens revealed in this picture exchange, neither seems to regret her day-to-day life. Also, Ajay delivers a surprisingly touching monologue making it clear that this was the best decision Zoe could have made. He says that her abortion freed both herself and her potential child to find lives in which they could both find happiness. If Zoe could get some NOT ABOUT MEN characterization, I’d really love her. As it is, the constant whining has made me nickname her Woey Zoe.

I think it’s because of its nuanced portrayal of abortion that this show is in danger of cancellation. It’s such a shame, too, since it’s one of the best series ABC has introduced in recent years. If you’d like to check it out before it joins that big cable line-up in the sky, it’s available on Hulu.


  1. KLee says

    Excellent discussion of an under-rated show. It surprised me how much I like this show. I’ve been enjoying the mix of sci-fi mystery, geeky science and interpersonal relationships. (oh, and Ron Livingston)

    You’re correct in that Zoe is the one woman who still has not been established beyond her relationship to a man. Yet I could say the same of Nadia, who seems to have only been painted according to her open sexuality and comfort as the friend-with-benefits. I like Jen but the thing with the rabbit fetus freaks me out.

    Unfortunately, ABC has now officially canceled the show which figures since that always happens to me. Fall in love with an unlikely show it’s guaranteed to be canned. We were left with a huge cliffhanger & ABC will most likely never air the remaining three episodes (there are conflicting reports about the likelihood). A blog response somewhere indicated that they are scheduled on the Canada network airing the show, it was also co-producer. One hopes that the eps will be put online or pop up elsewhere on the internet truck.

  2. Zahra says

    Really? You mean it got better? I saw the first episode but gave up because the show seemed only to care about selected pretty white people, Donner and Zoe (and I actually _liked_ Zoe). And the only reason I could see to care about Donner was that if you squint in poor light he looks kind of like George Clooney. (Personally, I’d rather re-watch Solaris.)

    Eve, while potentially interesting, seemed doomed to be the henchwoman of the Evil White Mission-Control Man. I couldn’t get over the fact that Ajay Sharma’s character was a) an appalling stereotype, and b) kicked off the mission & presumably the show in the first episode. I gather that he’s still in the cast? And that Morales got more air time than the pilot allowed?

    It seemed like every character of color was doomed to be subordinate to, or saved by, or really in love with, a white character. And that Zoe was going to be punished for her abortion with never-ending guilt. The good things–the inclusion of a black Buddhist scientist, a vague sense of potential, Christina Cox–weren’t enough.

    Based on your review I might be willing to give it another try, but I wonder….from your descriptions it sounds like the audience is supposed to read Eve and Nadia as villains who are insufficiently committed to their men. It might be a show I’d need to watch against the grain to enjoy.

  3. Zahra says

    Really? You mean it got better? I watched the first episode but gave up when it seemed the show only cared about selected pretty white people, Donner and Zoe (and I actually _liked_ Zoe). And the only reason I could see to care about Donner was that if you squint in poor light he looks kind of like George Clooney. (Personally, I’d rather re-watch Solaris.)

    Eve, while potentially interesting, seemed doomed to be the henchman of the Evil White Mission Control Man. I was mad that Ajay Sharma’s character was a) a huge stereotype and b) kicked off the ship & presumably the show in the first episode. I gather that he’s still in the cast on the ground? And that Morales got more screen time?

    All the characters of color were subordinate to/saved by white characters. And Zoe looked likely to be punished by her abortion by never-ending guilt. The good things–the inclusion of a black Buddhist scientist, a vague sense of potential, Christina Cox–didn’t outweigh these flaws.

    I’d be willing to give it another chance, but I wonder….Judging from your descriptions it sounds like both Eve and Nadia are written as villains the audience is supposed to boo for not standing sufficiently by their men. This might be one of those shows I have to watch against the grain to enjoy.

  4. KLee says

    zahra, it did get better but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not ‘high drama’ and that there are stereotypes galore. The show is problematic on several levels but I also pretty much watched with the critic/academic turned off–it hit just enough geeky buttons that I went with the flow. It certainly beat ‘desperate housewives.’

    Ajay is still in the cast, proving to be rather pivotal in a later episode and shows up often in flashbacks. Eve has turned out to be a bit more complex and has taken her opportunities to get dirt on and stick it to the “evil white mission-control man.” They flesh out her character in later flashbacks and she’s quite important to the story on several levels.

    Nadia is a one-note character who could be read as a villain only in that she is sexually aggressive. Zoe is problematic but as events unfold I read it as she’s not being punished for the abortion so much as regrets for choices and what might have been.

    Donner, who I like more for the actor than the character, also developed a bit more.

  5. says

    I watched the first episode thinking “wait…THIS was picked up instead of Virtuality? Curse you network TV!”

    I wrote it off the second the Zoe started hallucinating about a crying baby. You note that the treatment of her reaction to the abortion is remarkably nuanced with the regretting the abortion, but acknowledging the rightness of the choice. That just doesn’t work for me. Why does the abortion experience have to be traumatic? Why does she have to have any regret? What is so scary about making it clear that she made the choice that was right for her and went on with her life?

  6. Alice says

    I think that the abortion experience may have contributed, but I can’t lay the blame for the show’s demise at its feet. I caught up recently on hulu (the day before they decided to stop airing it, actually), but I’d been staying away after watching ep 1 for many of the above listed reasons. It just wasn’t compelling – few characters were fleshed out, and there were a lot of shortcuts. That said, I caught up because I *did* start to like it – bummed that it’s unlikely to ever finish out.

  7. Maria V. says

    Zahra —

    Ajay is still on the show, and while he’s still stereotypical, he’s got some great one liners about Englishmen trying to bond with him over curry.

    Draconismoi —

    I don’t like Zoe, because she’s a whiny git. The way she’s reacting to her abortion isn’t the way I’d like to react to an abortion, because she’s a whiny git. I think the thing that’s been most consistent about this character is that she’s whiny, she’s angsty, and it’s not just about the abortion. It’s about her mom, her dad, her hook-up with Donnor, her chances of getting into the space ship, etc. While I don’t like that she’s angsty about it, it fits perfectly with her Woey Zoe attitude. I don’t think this kind of character could make ANY decision without dwelling and pouting about it. That’s why I hate her so. 😛

    Also — and I totally just thought of this last night — everyone is hallucinating about dead things they couldn’t save and for whom it was best to let go. Paula is seeing her dog that needed to be put to sleep, Evram is seeing that dead Palestinian girl, Nadia is seeing that mysterious man, Ted’s seeing the storm that claimed the life of his teammates, and Donnor’s seeing the teammates themselves. I’m not sure that you’re supposed to see the hallucinations as just sadness and regret. At least for the dog, if it was as injured as it was in Paula’s hallucination, the best decision was to put it down. The same with the Palestinian girl; there was no way Evram could have saved her (except by not having been the soldier who attacked her school). :-/

    I’m really curious about what’s in Pod 4. Right now, I think the hallucinations are still ambivalent. Now, if Zoe’s pregnant lady dreams come true? I think all hope for this show is lost. :)

  8. Zahra says

    Apologies for the double posting above!

    If Nadia is funny, I may rescind my earlier argument. In my experience, humorous characters are beloved no matter what they do. It sounds like there could have been real potential in the show, especially with the Pod 4 mystery, but that it’s going to die before it gets there.

    Is is true that they final eps are only going to screen in Canada?

  9. says

    nuanced portrayal of abortion? are we even watching the same show?

    in defying gravity’s future timeline, abortion is clearly illegal. and the consequence of having an illegal abortion is sterility. the fact that they made a mifepristone analogy by using a chemical abortion rather than a surgical abortion makes the whole ABORTION=BAD WOMAN! message that much worse.

    that’s not nuanced, that’s one-note family-values bs. Ajay’s whole “you’ve now been freed from your reproductive burden” trope just reinforces the notion that a woman must compromise one thing (motherhood) for another (first-choice career). it isn’t the nature of her soul that put zoe in that predicament in the first place, it’s the anti-woman political “reality” of zoe’s universe.

  10. Maria V. says

    it isn’t the nature of her soul that put zoe in that predicament in the first place, it’s the anti-woman political “reality” of zoe’s universe.

    And you don’t think that’s nuanced? I mean, I think heavily emphasizing that they live in a place/time where women’s bodies are SO profoundly not their own (they can’t even get pregnancy tests in drugstores anymore, because they’re required to tell docs when they’re preg!!), where abortion is safe, but illegal, and where you ARE forced to choose between motherhood and a career (since zoe would be forced out of the program if she got pregnant), shows that society is deeply involved in the kind of rights women have and the kind of choices they feel easy about making.

    Also, I interpreted the RU486 reference as highlighting the fact that it’s not that they don’t have the technology to give women access to easy, safe abortions. It’s that the legislature chooses not to.

    I don’t like that her ovaries tripped the heck out and she had to have an emergency hysterectomy. While I don’t think you’re meant to see Zoe as the bad girl (that’s Nadia (for being sexually free)) I think you are meant to see her as essentially passive, and the victim of her decisions instead of the decision maker. However, one thing I did like about this is that it highlights the lack of bodily privacy I mentioned in my original post. Even as she’s being made, narratively, a victim of her decisions and of society’s misogyny, she’s made public — Eve, Jen, Ajay, that doctor, all know about her abortion and her hysterectomy. Her classmates also know that she’s unable to bear children. Her body is still everyone’s business, which I thought was a nice parallel to the fact that if she were pregnant, her body would be everyone’s business because of the law about pregnancy tests, the laws about abortion, and the conditions associated w. being in that program.

  11. says

    And you don’t think that’s nuanced?

    no, i don’t think “abortion is wrong and will make you sterile” is a nuanced position at all. nor is “women must sacrifice self for children (or vice versa).” nor is “better to be sterile than have to make a choice.” and those are the predominant messages defying gravity is sending regarding reproductive rights and reproductive choice.

    i can’t see how using a mifepristone analogue that results in an emergency hysterectomy is supposed to convey the message that abortions can be easy or safe, either.

  12. Maria V. says

    I don’t think the show is saying abortion is wrong. I think having Ajay make that little speech at the end of “Bacon” is meant to validate Zoe’s decision, particularly his emphasizing that Zoe’s choice frees her to make other life decisions that make her happy.

    The reason I think that the RU486 (just to confirm, that’s the other name for mifepristone? I’ve only ever seen it called the abortion pill or RU486) conveys that abortions can be safe/easy is that it’s a drug that’s available now, and that IS a safe procedure when you’ve got access to a doctor to make sure you don’t bleed out, that it’s a complete abortion, and are fully aware of the risks associated with it. I read Zoe’s needing a hysterectomy as being the result of the SECRET nature of her procedure, highlighted by the fact that she’s at a hospital when her cramps start, and can’t tell the doctors there what’s up because her having an abortion (and having had a pregnancy test in the first place!) is illegal. In that scene, I thought the show’s emphasis on the need to keep what was up with Zoe a secret emphasized that if it WASN’T a secret and WASN’T illegal, it’d play out very differently.

  13. Jennifer says

    I watched the show, but the pregnancy aspects of it squicked me the hell out. Zoe’s storyline REALLY smacked of “God is punishing you for having an abortion”, since suddenly if she can’t have this one, she can’t EVER have a baby again, even though it’s perfectly rational of her to get it aborted.

    Also, I liked Jen, but “It’s our space baby!”? Really? Smacked of baby crazy HARD. Hated that. Oh yeah, and when she risked her life for the RABBIT FETUS. For fuck’s sake.

  14. Maria V. says

    The space baby part I was okay on. But going back for her samples and the rabbit fetus? That was dumb, especially because they have FIVE YEARS to get caught up on the research they’ve spent 6 wks on. I also didn’t like the title of that particular episode (“Love, Honor, Obey”) because it looked like only the female members of the crew had to be taught how to obey, and were penalized for not obeying.

    Also, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it smacks of a naturalizing of male privilege that the writers go out of their way to establish how all the fem. characters (except Eve, who is magical) are extremely qualified at their jobs. Wass hasn’t yet been shown to make the base physical requirements, Donnor doesn’t seem to be especially brilliant, and I’m not sure why Ted is commander.


    I was excited, but now I’m not. :(

  15. Deb H says

    Nadia is a “MAN” because her hallucination is of a man who is her in a beard, AND when the doctor was telling everyone to not wear the Halo’s because they caused the hallucinations she told the doctor “she NEVER has worn the halo. Thus she’s a man who had a sex change operation, and is on female hormons and can not use the halo because it would screw up the hormons she’s taking.

  16. Maria says

    Hi Deb H. —

    Thanks for filling me in on the specifics of Nadia’s storyline. This show turned out to suck much more butt than I’d been hoping.

    Did you put “MAN” in quotes like that for a spec. reason?

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