If you were raised by television like me, you might be going through a tough period of transition and adjustment right now. After the emotional rollercoaster of Community’s cancellation by NBC and subsequent resurrection by Yahoo, that much talked-about How I Met Your Mother finale that thoroughly polarized fans, the hole left in my heart and cerebrum after the conclusion of Cosmos, and that fever-pitch anticipation for a TV adaptation of American Gods by Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller – among others, I found myself with a severely depleted repertoire of television shows to obsess over. I don’t watch Game of Thrones, nor do I watch Glee. So all I’m left with now is an increasingly inconsistent The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (still love it, don’t get me wrong), a plodding start to season 4 of Falling Skies and my DVD collection of Friends and Lost.
That has now changed. Along came Syfy’s new series Dominion, a show I highly recommend for the potential it is showing (it’s only 3 episodes in), albeit with a few provisos.
I wasn’t expecting much from Dominion at first viewing. For starters, it was picked up by Syfy, a network known for casting Hollywood washouts, campy writing, hammy acting, poor production values, derivative TV movies and, of course, Sharknado. The channel has survived thus far on so-bad-it’s-good kinda shows, and reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
(*Author’s addendum: If you have no idea what a Sharknado is, you must, must click on the link.)
Furthermore, Dominion is based on 2010’s apocalyptic supernatural thriller Legion, a movie that featured Paul Bettany as the Archangel Michael, and a robot preprogrammed with a collection of run-of-the-mill action scripts as the screenwriter. Or was the writer Scott Stewart? I really can’t be sure.
In the movie, Michael takes humanity’s side as his fellow angels, willed by a wrathful God, sought to exterminate us. The archangel’s larger mission, however, was to protect the baby of Jeep Hanson (worth noting here that Dennis Quaid, not a redneck, gave him that name) and Charlie Nosurname, a stock helpless pregnant female. The baby is prophesied to be the saviour of mankind from the angel-wrought apocalypse it faces. The film culminates in an almost-epic battle between Michael and his brother, the archangel Gabriel (played by a post-Lost, more menacing Kevin Durand). Legion did modestly in the box office – a poorly timed release saw it competing with
The Smurfs Part 2 Avatar – but was panned by critics mainly for its poor writing.
Where Legion had its wings clipped, however, Dominion soared, masterfully sidestepping Syfy’s usual pitfalls, and fantastically building upon the premise set by its predecessor, and vastly improving on it.
Where Legion made me feel claustrophobic – 90% of the film was set in a diner smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert aptly called Paradise Falls – Dominion is far more ambitious in scope and scale. It’s not just locale. Sure, most of the action takes place in a much larger post-apocalyptic Las Vegas – a city and not a diner. More than that, the series took the post-apocalyptic, humans-versus-angels mythos of Legion and added political intrigue, feminist commentary, delightfully divergent elucidations of religion, and studies of father-son relationships worth its weight in poetry, to give a show that is greater than the sum of its facets.
Dominion picks up 25 years after the events of Legion and God’s cataclysmic temper tantrum. God has since ‘disappeared’, and the war between humans and angels has been dialed down several notches, reduced to sporadic skirmishes after several significant human victories led by Michael. Humanity has taken refuge in great walled, fortified cities, such as Vega (said post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, a la Fallout: New Vegas), while the angels have built great mountain fortresses, that look like the love children of Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle and Mordor’s Barad-dûr (Dark Tower), to recover and plan their next attack in.
The protagonist is Sergeant Alex Lannon (Christopher Egan, Letters to Juliet)) of Vega’s Archangel Corps, an elite infantry unit led by Michael himself – Vega’s first line of defence against the angels. We first get to know Alex as a sort of a loose cannon, going on a lone, unsanctioned mission to find 8-balls, the show’s derogatory term for humans possessed by angels. The exposition here might be wearisome to some – the trope of the rogue protagonist taking matters into his own hands, gets punished by the authorities, but was right all along, was probably celebrating its one millionth over-use with Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. But Egan plays Lannon without the machismo or physical extravagance that compensates your average poorly-written sci-fi stock protagonist. There is something there in his performance – it’s not great – but sets the stage for intriguing character development in the coming episodes.
Vega itself is run by a senate filled with ruling families and Houses, in the style of Dune (nope, not gonna namedrop Game of Thrones). The two main ones that are of any plot value are House Whele and House Reisen.
House Whele’s grand patriarch is Consul David Whele (Anthony Steward Head, Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s Professor Rupert Giles) Vega’s chief administrator and Secretary of Commerce, a bureaucratic, shrewd, Machiavellian politician. His son is the Principate William Whele, a man of the cloth rather averse to violence and the political manipulations his father is wont to do.
(*Author’s addendum: There’s inaccuracy in giving William the rank of Principate here – while etymologically it shares the same Latin base as Prince, which was the word they should have gone for here, a Principate is a socio-political system, not a rank. You just need to Google that shit, O Writers of Dominion)
His staunchest ally and close friend is the selfless ruler of the city, General Edward Riesen of House Riesen (played by Alan Dale – Lost‘s Charles Widmore).
While a military man, General Reisen wishes to see Vega transit into a Republic. He is generally stoic and ruthless when the situation demands it, but his gentleness is manifested in his daughter Claire, played by the very beautiful Roxanne McKee, who I’ve recently waxed lyrical about. Their relationship, juxtaposed with the General’s responsibilities towards Vega’s safety and progress makes Edward Reisen one of the more appreciable characters in the series. Claire plays a spiritual teacher, and we learn early into the pilot episode that she is in a secret relationship with Sergeant Alex Lannon.
The relationship is secret because of the V-system, a social order implemented by General Reisen as a temporary means of ensuring Vega’s smooth running. This system, while having its ideals in keeping order, has devolved into a caste system, with political leaders and their counterparts at the top, and lowly workers as pariahs. It has come to a point where members of vastly different classes do not mingle, and relationships and dalliances are kept strictly intra-, and never inter-class. Whether this will become a masterful plot element, or a cheap way to shoehorn social commentary into the narrative remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the angels, led by Gabriel (played by Carl Beukes, who hitherto has worked mainly in South African television) have pretty much left humanity alone. They have taken to enjoying the pleasures that come with having corporeal, human bodies, indulging in orgies and looking Euro-trance beautiful in dark, ornate rooms like vampires out of an Anne Rice novel. Fighting is done only when humans venture beyond their walled cities, or by ‘higher angels’, angels of enough power that they do not need human hosts to walk the Earth.
The pilot episode reveals Sergeant Alex Lannon to be The Chosen One – the baby from Legion prophesied to be humanity’s saviour. What this means is unclear, as both Michael and Gabriel appear to have well-laid plans for him.
But it does make for a pretty aww-inducing romantic back-and-forth between him and Claire, as Lannon struggles with his humanity and his role in humankind’s greater history. Lannon’s wanderlust and general restlessness also results in forays beyond Vega, and the break from walled city set pieces to desolate open world makes for a fresh change in scenery and plot rhythm and development.
Casting for Dominion is pretty decent thus far – the leads play their roles adequately, although something has to be said about the standout performances of Tom Wisdom (Astinos from 300) and Anthony Stewart Head.
Tall, gangly, pasty, obviously armed with a composed higher intellect that at times struggled to understand baser human behaviour, Tom Wisdom’s Archangel Michael reminds me of a Sheldon Cooper capable of asskickery of the highest magnitude; 0h – and actual sexuality.
As he was in Legion, the Archangel Michael plays humanity’s guardian angel (HAH!) of very few words, and the show’s main participant of winged, epic mid-flight fight sequences. (Flight or fight? BOTH!) Wisdom’s acting is exquisitely nuanced, his speech and movements calculated to be both understated and imposing. Of course, the production team contributes to his overall performance – his wardrobe builds on Matrix-esque cool without overusing black, while camera shots of him have been strategically planned to assert the sense of impressiveness and foreboding viewers will learn to associate exclusively with Michael.
Anthony Stewart Head, in the meantime, has finally taken a break from playing elderly teachers and mentors, as he did for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Merlin. His portrayal of David Whele has been thoroughly consummate, a man who is the product of the decisions he was forced to make – a shrewd manipulator who is nevertheless human in his concern for his friend (a man like that doesn’t have many), his struggles to connect with his son, and his affinity for women and whiskey.
All in all, Dominion has been a rather entertaining watch at the very least, and there is much promise in its premise, and the way the first few episodes have been presented. Intriguing, engaging – not without its faults and clichés, but taken on its own, without reference to larger, already established works, Dominion can take flight.
DOMINION IN SUMMARY
Watch it for: Tom Wisdom’s performance, decent effects, and epic angel-on-angel fight sequences.
Change the channel for: overused tropes
Verdict: 12 stars! out of 17