Unlike shows burdened with such labels as “much-anticipated,” Dark Matter arrived on Syfy under the radar, its cloak engaged and its silent running protocol fully implemented.
Created by Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, both of whom worked on the various Stargate shows, the series is based on a comic novel published by Dark Horse Comics. The premise is the sort that TV execs in the ’70s loved, ideas you can explain in their entirety on a single lung of air: six people wake from hyper-sleep aboard a spacecraft they’re not familiar with, their minds blanked. Are they good, bad, or a bit of both?
As Dark Matter’s characters don’t know their names, they give each other number designations based on the order that they awoke, and with the help of an equally amnesiac android, set off in search of the true about themselves and their ship, the Raza.
The clue to what this is all about is in the ship name, because “Tabula Rasa” is the Latin for “clean slate.” This goes to the heart of a philosophical argument about people and if “nurture” or “nature” essentially determines who they become. By removing the characters’ prior memories, it becomes an experiment where someone knows how they should turn out, but is curious to discover if they were always born to be that.
An early twist on this is the character Five, who as a teenage girl is clearly not one of the original crew. She also ends up with the memories of the others jumbled in her head, without a guide as to who it is that the memories relate. This aspect was initially used to reveal, mostly through flashback, curious facts about the six, and how they became to be in the crew.
Most of the early episodes rotate around self-discovery, though on several occasions either the memories Five holds or other information provide an entirely misleading perspective. Gnawing away at what cohesion is forming between the six is the knowledge that one of them probably sabotaged the sleep pods. Just as they do start to find common ground, cleverly things happen that undermine what trust they have, and even their understanding of who they are.
Being on the Syfy channel, I didn’t really hold out much hope for Dark Matter on first viewing. It used a simple idea, and worked around it familiar tropes mostly from western movies, but also some well-worn sci-fi notions. An early story was a version of The Magnificent Seven, and then there was a zombies-in-the derelict-starship plot, and in another they needed to rely on the Android to take a spacewalk to fix the ship. Seen all this before? These weren’t bad stories, though they didn’t really break away from the initial derivative feel that anyone coming to Dark Matter cold might rapidly assume.
And then, slowly something really strange started to happen, because the more the show’s characters learn about who they were, the less the crew seem to like about themselves or their ship mates.
As a long term Star Trek fan, I can recognize the value of discord. Because, and I’m sure lots of people will disagree with me on this, that’s what made Deep Space Nine really interesting. On all the other Trek shows, the characters generally got on very well, pulling towards a common objective. That wasn’t always the case in DS9, and it made for a much more exciting character dynamic. After a short while, Dark Matter started to exhibit exactly that sort of friction.
Eventually, over the first half of the season generally good reasons were established for not trusting all of the six, and maybe not even the Android. Very elegantly, the show segued into an Agatha Christie-type whodunit. It then flipped back and forwards between the greater threats being those who know them, to the crew themselves.
This instability really took hold in episode eight, which introduced the notion of clone transport technology involving your consciousness being sent to a remote location installed in a clone with a limited lifespan, allowing you to complete your mission without any concern that you might be killed. This was a great idea, and also responsible for some tantalising revelations.
From this point onwards, the show really started to break out, but what really got people excited were the rather shocking events of episodes ten and eleven.
Resolution fans will be happy to know that the conspirator is revealed by the end of the first season (Syfy has already ordered a second), but less happy that there wasn’t much, if anything, given that could be considered an explanation. One might surmise why the guilty party had done it, but it was generally guesswork and left almost everything to the imagination.
The huge number of questions left unanswered by the series end made Syfy’s second-season renewal come as a relief to many, including me. We’re owed more of an explanation next summer, so will have to bide our time patiently until then.
Yet surely, the grace of a good TV show isn’t to dot every ‘I’ and cross each and every ‘T’, but to tell a good story and get the audience to emotionally invest in the characters. Dark Matter does that rather well, and it got better at it as the season progressed. Some of the characters haven’t reached their full potential yet, and their nemesis, Alex Rook (Wil Wheaton), needs to be developed too.
What I like about the show is that a good portion of the budget clearly went into the Raza set, which looks amazing. Though I’d like to see more detailed external shots, placing the context of where they are physically inside.
I also like the idea that this is a universe without aliens-of-the-week, and also that there isn’t any great context to American historical events. This is a future that with the exception of space travel isn’t far removed from life today, with big corporations being the new super-states.
The acting ranges from good-enough to excellent, especially in respect of the many characters. I especially liked Zoie Palmer’s Android, and Jodelle Ferland gave Five a subtle fragility that she was always trying to shake off.
Both Anthony Lemke (Three) and Roger Cross (Six) are TV stalwarts and provide solid delivery that others can work off. The casting of the seven main characters was critical to this idea working, and based on the thirteen screened episodes so far, the production team chose well. The appearance of an almost unrecognizable Wil Wheaton as Rook, and other actors from equally notorious science fiction shows, only spiced things further.
While only three (if you include the Android) of the team are female, the ship’s women certainly weren’t given short shrift, and it was most refreshing to see them saving the day instead of their male counterparts, as the plot required. Strong female characters don’t need to act like men, and this was well demonstrated here.
My biggest complaint is the title sequence, which looks like a CGI test for Transformers credits that was previously rejected. What has it to do with this show? Please, change it to something relevant at least.
Given the uninspiring nature of some of Syfy’s previous shows, Dark Matter demonstrates just what the channel can achieve with the right creative team. It’s not like Stargate or Battlestar Galactica, and is very much evolving to become its own independent thing. If you’ve not checked out this show I recommend you do catch it, and I’d also suggest you don’t take the variable nature of the early stories as any indication of how this show plays out.