In space no one might be able to hear you scream, but they usually won’t have any trouble telling what’s in your DVD collection. On board movie and TV spacecraft, genre classics cast a long shadow.
Space-set horror Nightflyers (adapted from George R.R. Martin’s 1981 novella and updated from the 1987 feature film), arriving on Netflix this Friday, is the story of a mission to make first contact with alien life. On their journey from Earth, the crew of the Nightflyer experience unusual events and psychological trauma. What’s causing it and why is just one of several mysteries to unfold across the ten episodes.
It’s an innovative series, but also one that wears its sci-fi influences on its sleeve. Characters walk on XD-1-style revolving wheels and the HAL-9000-alike red glowing eye of the ship’s computer is ever present. Showrunner Jeff Buhler, his directors and design team have used the opportunity of a big-budget space drama to pay tribute to some personal genre favourites.
A Space Odyssey
“There’s a lot of Kubrickian elements,” actor Eoin Macken tells us over the phone from Dublin, “which Mike [Cahill, director] and Jeff [Buhler, showrunner] included in terms of how the characters react within the physical world.”
“Mike, who directed the first episode and the director of photography Markus [Forderer] were huge fans of 2001. A lot of Mike’s visual references came from that in terms of the scope of it, but also the building sense of a big, expansive space where it’s actually quite claustrophobic.”
“It’s kind of incongruent,” continues Macken, who plays the Nightflyer’s astrophysicist and mission leader Karl D’Branin, “with the fact you’re in space and there’s so much of it but actually you’re in a tiny small ship and there’s nowhere to go.”
That claustrophobia goes hand in hand with paranoia, and plays into Nightflyers’ theme of surveillance and the invasion of privacy. “That’s a very Orwellian thing, isn’t it?” says Macken. “It’s woven into a lot of science-fiction and it does become a big part of it.”
The sets for the Nightflyer were built on huge soundstages in Limerick, Ireland. “We used to get lost a lot” laughs Macken. “You really felt that you were immersed in this world. Everything was dark around you all the time, the sets are vast, dark and cavernous.”
“They put a lot of work into how the shape of the set should be interpreted by the camera,” he explains. “The memory suite [where crewmembers go to replay their memories], for example, is like a giant malteser, when you stand in the very centre of it, because of the way sound bounces and because it is geometrically almost a perfect circle, then if you take a step back from the centre, the sound is totally different. It’s this weird bubble effect.”
The geometry of the sets, and their specific curvatures were designed, says Macken, to marry with elements of the costumes and lighting, creating the Nightflyer’s distinctive visual language.
Infinite space – infinite terror
As a space horror peppered with unexplained events, comparisons to 1997 feature Event Horizon aren’t only inevitable but wholly justified. “There are a couple of references to Paul Anderson’s movie Event Horizon, which I think is fantastic, and the same with Alien,” says Macken. “Visually, [Buhler] wanted to pay homage to some of those moments. There are visual homages to The Shining as well, which Jeff wanted to bring in, which makes it a lot of fun.”
“What’s really in the fabric of the show,” he adds, “on top of the crazy, weird ideas and the horror elements are those facets of the personal characters and where they end up being pushed to and what they sacrifice.”
That said, fans should expect weird crazy ideas and memorable horror elements. “There’s a very Cronenberg-style element that comes in quite quickly in the show, in the first half of the season,” teases Macken.
“I don’t know if I can tell you this or if it’s a spoiler [look away now if you don’t want to know], but part of Karl’s flesh ends up becoming alive and attached to a machine, which becomes quite gross. It’s a part of Karl himself which is really interesting, that was the weirdest thing to shoot.”
Nightflyers season one arrives on Netflix on Friday the 1st of February. We’ll bring you more on the show later this week.