This is a spoiler-free review.
Let me begin by confessing that I am a huge fan of The Expanse, both the book and the TV series. With that one show, the Syfy Channel raised their profile dramatically among hard science fiction geeks and elevated their programming back to Battlestar Galactica levels. With their newest offering in the genre, Nightflyers, they are poised to do it again. If, that is, the show can achieve enough momentum to break orbit instead of backsliding into the gravity well of schlock.
Before we go any further, we need to be very clear: potential viewers surfing the internet for reviews will hear the inevitable comparison to the 1997 film Event Horizon. It is an easy leap to make, lest we forget that Nightflyers was originally a Locus Award winning novella published in 1980 by George R. R. Martin. Adapted into a low-budget film in 1987 it would be unfair to say the two films were similar or even related. Thematically, however, there is a grey area. The specific themes being hard science fiction. And horror.
And you will get plenty of horror in the opening sequence of the season premiere of Nightflyers.The tension ramps up so quickly that this viewer was grinding her teeth and breaking into a flop sweat. Seriously. We are talking a series opening as jarring as some of the scenes in season 1 of the Walking Dead. Which is pretty damn impressive for Syfy. The success of that opening scene was in no small part thanks to the excellent acting chops of Gretchen Mol as Dr. Matheson and Angus Sampson as Rowan.
We find these two, passengers on the colony space ship the Nightflyer, locked in horrific conflict before the story cuts back to the beginning of their ill-fated journey. Can you guess why they are on a colony ship? Sure you can! No one will be surprised to find out that in the near future, a colony ship is a necessity because – wait for it – humans have pretty much trashed the Earth.
This is where the series takes its first of many major departures from the novella. For those of you familiar with hard science fiction from the 70’s and 80’s, the motivation for space travel was less a product of our destroying our home planet, and more a function of the natural growth of the human species or the drive to explore. All while retaining the stereotypical failings and frailty of our kind. Will this change serve to modernize the story? Hard to say until we see what kind of payoff the finale brings.
Another major departure was in the casting of the extremely attractive David Ajala as Captain Eris. Not to complain, Ajala is quite capable (with a pensive stare that reminded this viewer of a young Tim Curry) but in print Eris was physically frail and wholly dependent on his technology. That aspect of plot development made his character even more compelling. The question is whether the writing will support Ajala and the character who should be his counterpoint, Jodie Turner-Smith, cast as Melantha, through the same powerful narrative arc, now that one of their major obstacles (a lack of physicality) has been erased.
But, as this is television, instead of one or two simple protagonists there is an ensemble cast all of whom have the opportunity to grow and develop. Or die horribly. Did we mention this is space horror originally written by George R. R. Martin?
The entire reason for the mission is so that Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken) can make contact with a space anomaly, which he believes to be a spacecraft, belonging to an advanced alien species which, if they chose to help, would allow humans to travel to hospitable planets faster, thereby saving the race. What could possibly go wrong? Eris agrees to support the mission, using his Nightflyer to intercept these aliens. But things start to go wrong pretty quickly for D’Branin and his team of scientists (and Eris, and the crew of the Nighflyer). Hell, everything goes to shit super fast.
Because there is something on the ship with them. Something malevolent and evil which causes both gory hallucinations and technical malfunctions. Which is where the Event Horizon comparisons come in. The scientists and the crew begin to mistrust each other, the ship seems to come alive and act with ill intent. To make matters worse, D’Branin included a telepath on his team, someone who is universally feared and reviled for his powers.
Again we see all the hallmarks of Martin’s storytelling style. The characters are deeply flawed, each one has their own motivation, and the story is propelled forward by their interactions and mistakes as much as by the deus ex machina.
Also, boobs. Dear SyFy, we get it, the show is set in the “future” and we all assume that in the “future” people will be less intimidated by nudity. But if you really want to show a liberated, quasi-Swedish sentimentality, you would show a diverse range of nudity (read: hairy ass) and not just multiple shots of gratuitous, extremely attractive boobs.
We all love boobs, but this clearly isn’t progressive, it’s pandering.
Despite the overt sexualization of the leading female characters, there is a lot of compelling subtext. What is perception? What is truth? How objective are our memories and how much do they define us as people and as a species? What drives D’Branin and Eris to take on this mission, hurtling farther from Earth than anyone has dared to go, on a mission to explore and learn and make contact?
Will Nighflyers pursue these questions, which really lie at the heart of the horror of the human condition, with as much depth as Martin did? The potential for another excellent series is within reach, but only if the producers at Syfy overcome the temptation to descend into the heavy handed gothic horror that inspired the novella and keep the story focused, laser like, on the agony of being trapped and alone in a nightmare from which there is no escape, while hurtling forgotten through the void.