Vagrant Queen: Oh, Dear

I’d been waited for Syfy’s Vagrant Queen, and frankly, the past two weeks I was waiting with higher and higher anticipation. Part of the crushing disappointment I feel may be an artifact of poorly managed expectations. I thought I knew what to expect, but they managed to bottom out below that.

I put part of the blame on Syfy itself. In the past five or six years, Syfy has sent messages that it wants to do good SF programming. They did three seasons of the brilliant The Expanse, and five seasons of The Magicians. Those were top-tier shows that hold up against anything the darlings of HBO, Amazon and Netflix are producing. Their second tier included a trio of shows (over time) that showcased great characters, good storytelling and excellent writing: Lost Girl, Killjoys and Wynonna Earp (still going strong after a two-year hiatus). Of those three, Wynonna Earp has the strangest premise and is the quirkiest, but still manages to work.

Based on that, I thought that Vagrant Queen, which was hyped in some circles as “having a ‘Killjoys‘ vibe,” would be that good. I understand about small budgets; both Killjoys and Wynonna Earp manage to turn that to their advantage by what they did with exteriors and settings. I thought Vagrant Queen would focus on the on-screen talent and the writing, which is what they did with Killjoys in particular. In Episode One of Killjoys, before I had any clue what was going on, I knew that Dutch was a badass, Johnny was smart and funny, and that Johnny had gotten them both into a big mess. I knew that Westerly, the moon they docked at, was also in trouble. I knew that so-called “code” of the Reclamation Agents was a big clue that corruption was rife throughout this planetary system. And that’s Episode One.

Vagrant Queen tries really hard to pull this off in their first episode. We learn quickly that Elida is the heir to a throne on a world where some ideological extremists pulled off a coup and deposed the royal family. A member of the Admiralty, the post-revolutionary body, has been hunting her down for ten years. But he finds her this time because “reasons.”(“I may have accidentally led them here,” one of her friends says. Ya think?)

Elida has been making a living as a scavenger. The Admiralty comes to the trading post satellite where she trades, and chase scenes, torture and murders ensue. We meet Isaac, who is or used to be Elida’s friend; Amae, a mechanic (shades of Kylie in Firefly!) who ends up joining the team, and Nim, a talking catlike being who might be a robot. There is a blue woman who is a royalist and wants to bring Elida home, and the evil Admiralty guy.

Nothing’s particularly new — Elida traps herself in a trash compactor, for instance — but it really doesn’t have to be if the characters pop and the dialogue sparkles. Sadly, neither of those things happens. The dialogue is terrible. Elida must say, “No no no no no,” in response to the Blue Woman at least three times. The dialogue is bad, but the acting is also pretty bad. Even Tim Rozon, who plays Isaac, seems to be having a very bad day here. We’ve seen Rozon play the not-so-good-guy hero Doc Holliday in Wynonna Earp, so we know he can act. Here, he delivers his lines like he got handed his script five minutes before he stepped in front of the camera.

I had trouble with the facial prosthetics. The proportions are off, and they’re concentrating on strange ears and horns as signifiers of other-than-humans. The point is, it’s bad enough that I noticed and it’s distracting me. One thing I do like; non-humans are the majority, at least in Episode One.

These distracting problems at first cover up the fact that Elida behaves stupidly in order to move the plot, and she’s got a nonexistent moral code. In the opening scene, she lets two rival scavengers get the drop on her in the most basic way possible. She kills the one who is trying to kill her, and then, after thinking about it, kills the other one, who is unarmed and no threat to her. The fact that they are both less human-looking then she seems to indicate that in the world of Vagrant Queen, some lives matter more than others.

I may believe that this is a frontier galaxy where life is cheap, etc. The story celebrates killing people with zero consequences. Elida has no moral code; why am I supposed to think she’s any better than the Admiralty? In fact, maybe the callous brutality of her family is what triggered the revolution. The opening scene certainly supports that theory.

Later she decides to fight her way past an Admiralty checkpoint and get to her disabled ship. That would be the ship that she can’t fly away in, because it’s disabled. The royalists find her and say, “Quick, come hide with us!” and have no trouble getting her onto their ship. This is because the only people who behave more stupidly than Elida are the Admiralty folks.

There are some action scenes with (probably) wire work and martial-arts- looking stuff that are pretty but too slow and don’t read as fight scenes.

You get the drift. Production values aren’t great here. The storytelling is familiar and pretty flabby, and so is the writing. Usually I give a show two episodes before I decide. I may have already made up my mind though. Vagrant Queen is just not working.

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