Arriving a decade too late to cash in on millennium angst, the film Legion, directed by Scott Stewart from a script co-written with Peter Schink, was over-wrought and long winded, the tale of a desert diner laid siege by rampaging angels sent to purge the Earth after God has finally (and understandably) lost patience with mankind. Lacking the originality or weight required to carry itself as a serious drama, the one saving grace could have been to recognise the absurdity of the conceit and leaven it with a generous dose of, if not outright comedy, at least irony, yet the plagues of flies, possessed humans and demonic ice cream vendors of the archangel Gabriel’s army were presented with po-faced solemnity.
With four years passed since a critical mauling combined with only modest success, the announcement of a television spin-off set twenty five years after the events of the film could only be described as surprising, and created by Vaun Wilmott based on the (very few surviving) characters created by Schink and Stewart the prelude to the opening episode has also rewritten the backstory, now advising that “God has disappeared” and “the angels blamed man.”
With the last of humanity living in walled enclaves armed against Gabriel’s army, Las Vegas reborn as Vega, within is a strictly controlled hierarchy of castes and houses. Raised as an orphan, Sergeant Alex Lannon (Christopher Egan) of the Archangel Corps has had to fight his way up the ranks; having saved her life his friendship with Claire Riesen (Game of Thrones’ Roxanne McKee) is publicly acknowledged but as daughter of the Lord of the City their true relationship is forbidden.
In his dual capacity as head of his house and Lord of the City, General Edward Riesen (Alan Dale, most recently seen in a supporting role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is trapped; instrumental in creating the society which he knows must now evolve beyond a military dictatorship, should he forfeit his post his rival Consul David Whele (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head), currently Secretary of Commerce, will seize power. A former televangelist who still officially embraces faith, the cynical and manipulative Whele’s only interest is in advancing his family, preferably through the marriage of his son William (Luke Allen-Gale), Principate of the Church of the Savior, to the reluctant Claire.
In all this is the archangel Michael (Tom Wisdom, taking over the role played by Paul Bettany in Legion) who stood by humanity against his brother Gabriel. It is he who has been guardian of Vega, advisor to General Riesen and who has raised Alex, yet kept from his charge the knowledge that his father Jeep Lannon (Black Sails’ Langley Kirkwood, taking over the role from Lucas Black and jarringly less than twelve years older than his onscreen son Egan) may still be alive in the wilderness.
With those possessed by angels changing and becoming more bold in their attacks, two events coincide to bring a radical shift within the city: the arrival of a delegation from the city of Helena led by Arika (Shivani Ghai) with whom David seeks to make an alliance, and the return of Alex’s father Jeep who has located the stronghold of Gabriel and now must reveal the identity of the Chosen One who will lead the battle against him.
Undoubtedly ambitious and with an opening episode boasting huge crowd scenes in vast locations and setpieces involving wirework, digital and practical effects, Dominion is a flagship show of the American SyFy Channel, but while it draws inspiration from its own parent film, itself most noticeably influenced by 1995’s The Prophecy where the angel civil war spilled onto Earth headed by Christopher Walken’s Gabriel and Viggo Mortensen’s Lucifer and 1998’s The Seventh Sign where Demi Moore and Michael Biehn bargained against the apocalypse to save their unborn child, another inspiration is apparent.
With the setting of a walled city in the hostile desert with the various houses vying for control of the walled city and its resources, the shifting allegiances and political manoeuvring, the bloodlines and prophecies, the template for Dominion has been taken from SyFy’s own adaptation of Dune, right down to the costumes of General Riesen (Duke Leto Atreides) and Claire Reisen (Lady Alia Atreides) with the delegation from Helena serving as the Bene Gesserit in all but name, right down to the final reveal of the episode (as telegraphed since the opening scene) of the identity of the Chosen One as the outcast son denied his heritage.
One of Britain’s greatest imports, the ever reliable Anthony Head is effortless as the oleaginous Consul Whele, and Roxanne McKee brings warmth and charm to Claire, caught between loyalty to her father, her love of Alex and the obligations of her position, but so far the key roles of Alex and Michael have required little of Egan and Wisdom beyond looking good in a uniform and being coldly inscrutable, though this is still more than has been asked of Rosalind Halstead’s Consul Becca Thorn, supposedly a key city official in charge of scientific and medical research yet little more than animated cleavage in the pilot.
The tone of Dominion is curious in an age of increasing pressure for scientific literacy and secular discussion on a world forum, standing as a feast at the altar of end-of-the-world cults. The religious thriller relies on the fear of the faithful audience that they are suddenly alone and spiritually adrift, a child who has lost their parents and must face the world without guidance or support, or worse, that the parent has gone bad, turned against them. Reinvented in the age of reason and unable to muster the psychological weight of The Exorcist or The Omen, it instead relies on guns and explosions, devolving to Roman spectacle recreated Vega style with cage fighting and public executions, bread and circuses for the baying masses.
Pilot episodes, particularly for genre series, are always a difficult balancing act, with the obligation of not only introducing the characters, their lives and their immediate situation but also the whole world in which they live, and it is in this exposition that Dominion fails most spectacularly, with the mythology recited verbatim twice within the first fifteen minutes and almost every conversation recited as though it has been culled directed from the production notes (ironically generally referred to as “the show Bible”), reinforcing the artifice rather than dissolving the boundary between performer and audience.
Should the teething difficulties be soothed and it find itself on a more solid dramatic footing, Dominion has the potential to shore up the defences of the stronghold, but it will be a long struggle into the night to last to a second season.