How Syfy's 'Nightflyers' Brings George R.R. Martin's Storytelling Into Space

[This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of Syfy's Nightflyers.]

There are thousands of worlds out there in the universe — at least, thousands of worlds in the universe as imagined by George R.R. Martin, the architect behind HBO's Game of Thrones franchise, Hulu's forthcoming Wild Cards adaptation as well as the newest series on the block: Syfy's Nightflyers.

Based on Martin's 1980 novella of the same name, Nightflyers focuses on the crew of a spaceship known as the Nightflyer, traveling through the stars in order to make first contact with an alien species. What starts as a mission of scientific exploration and curiosity quickly devolves into high-stakes terror, as the passengers of the Nightflyers begin encountering deadly phenomenon they can't possibly understand.

Martin's original Nightflyers tale, which was adapted as a feature film in 1987, was one of several stories set in what he's described as "The Thousand Worlds" universe. For executive producer and showrunner Jeff Buhler, the television version of Nightflyers aims to barrel headlong into those worlds, beginning with what he hopes is the first of multiple seasons inspired by Martin's dangerous storytelling sensibilities. 

The danger is front and center within the first minutes of the blood-filled season premiere, which bowed Sunday on Syfy. The violent conclusion will be known in short order, too, as Syfy plans to air all 10 episodes of Nightflyers' first season by Dec. 13, a release strategy that hybridizes weekly viewing with the streaming service era's bingeing habits. In the interview ahead, Buhler explains that strategy, outlines the bold science-fiction storytelling he hopes to explore, the ways in which Martin inspired the adaptation and much more.

Both as a universe and as a production, Nightflyers must be an all-consuming endeavor. Was that full immersion an exhilarating experience? A stressful one?

Yes and yes. (Laughs.) For some reason, the scale of the production and the complexity of the stories that we wanted to tell never entered our minds in the writers room. Obviously, you have certain restraints. There's a limit to what can be done, but we were extremely ambitious with the stories we wanted to tell in the first ten hours of this crazy world that we created. The more we got into it, the more we wanted to do. The real challenge from a writing perspective was to not try to do everything and really show some restraint. But when I'm looking at the [episodes] now, I'm thinking, "Wow, there wasn't a lot of restraint!" (Laughs.) Just in terms of the crazy, cool, fun genre stuff that we put on the screen…

Much of which goes completely unexplained, like the chambers where people can live through old memories. You're putting a lot of faith in the viewers to hop into this world and go along for the ride.

Yeah, we put a lot of trust in our audience. As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I always get annoyed when movies or TV shows stop and start to explain stuff to you that you already understand. And what we did with Nightflyers was there is a cinematic language taken from so many other stories that we hold in very high regard, whether it's 2001 or The Shining or The Exorcist or Ridley Scott's Alien. We were not shy about paying homage to what influenced us. So I approached it with the point of view that our core audience would also be coming from that perspective, where they understood and recognized some of these elements. And we didn't have to go too deep into explaining, but I think the first few episodes do a really good job of setting up the world and the technology and presenting it at a pace that is digestible, and then the series takes off and things get really crazy very quickly. That's what's fun about it: it feels like a slow burn for a while, and then it just goes nuts.

Well, it goes nuts immediately. The first scene of Nightflyers takes place at some point in the future, as an inexplicably crazed Rowan (Angus Sampson) tries to ax-murder Agatha (Gretchen Mol) for some unknown reason — a reference to The Shining, as you mentioned. The sequence ends with Agatha committing suicide, so through the bulk of the series as we watch her, we know how her story is likely to end. Why start this way?

In my feature work in genre, I always try to approach genre from a character standpoint, and then in approaching this as a piece of George R.R. Martin material, what I found is he's so great at developing rich characters, but there's certain expectations that people bring to consuming his material. One of those, of course, is the fact that these rich characters that he creates can be killed at anytime, that nobody's safe, that your most beloved character could get knocked off at any episode. And I didn't want to go into this series playing with that. We wanted to get that out of the way and be like, "Yeah, okay, here, [one of the leads dies in the] first four minutes, done." Now what? We take away something that felt like an easy expectation of the audience to bring with them. 

The other element was I thought it would be really fun to show just the level of psychological distress that we were gonna get to, a glimpse of it, and then go back to a very peaceful tone at the beginning and start to build the tension and really wind up the spring. That moment that you see in that opening scene doesn't occur until very late in the season, and when we get there, we're experiencing it in a much different way because of all of the mysteries that have come to light on the journey, and it allows us to do a little bit of a Rashomon thing where we see it one way and then we see it another way. And we understand things that we didn't understand before. But it also allows us to send a promissory note to the audience and say, "Look, we're going to get to the craziness, so don't worry. Here's a glimpse of it. Now buckle down and stick with us while we build up some of the story, world and characters around it." 

You worked on adapting Nightflyers for years before it became a reality. What was it about this story that spoke to you?

There are a couple elements that really blew me away. You see a lot of science fiction that's about different planets and alien races, or far- off destinations, but no one ever really talks about the space in between the planets. And much of what the novella Nightflyers is about is this alien species that exists in the void between planetary systems, which dovetails into another irk of mine with science fiction, in that space travel always seems really easy. Someone sits back, they press a button, then you just hyper-jump or warp-drive to the next planetary system or to the next star system. There's disregard to the scale and scope of our universe and our galaxies and how far that really is. I don't think your average viewer thinks, "Oh, how many light years? What does that really mean? How many miles is that? How long would that take to travel?" 

There was something really fascinating about the gulf in between star systems that George tapped into, and the idea that we could tell a story where there's a journey where a group of characters are on a ship that's basically the most advanced craft ever built by humans, and it's still extremely difficult just to get to the edge of our planetary system, which is only scratching the surface of what's out there in our galaxy, which means the mysteries that go beyond the void of our solar system are so vast. It reminds me of the explorers when they were discovering the new world, and they had no idea if the ocean would drop off a cliff. "Is the earth flat? What's going to happen?" That was really exciting, from an adventure standpoint.

The other thing that really gripped me about the story is the end, when we start to get to some answers. What George does so great in his storytelling is replace answers with more questions. When you get to this big moment, it makes you feel like you've only just pushed the door open a crack and seen a glimpse of something much, much bigger. I thought that was really fascinating. It allowed me to view the material as an ongoing story, as opposed to a closed-ended one. The structure of the novella is kind of a Ten Little Indians story where people are getting killed one by one and there's nobody left at the end of it. And so, George always said, "I don't understand how you do this as a TV show." And it was looking to the mythology and that idea that there's more beyond what we're seeing, that allowed me to view it as a serialized story. 

You see Nightflyers as having a multi-season arc? 

Oh, yeah. This really feels like the opening of a huge world. The Nightflyers novella is one of many stories that George has written in the "Thousand Worlds" universe. In that universe, there are many planets, many species. There's all kinds of things going on out there. We dialed back on the number of alien species. I wanted to tell a story that reflected our current world, the state of the human race, what's happening with our earth, and the idea of if there really is a moral imperative for us to explore? You see a lot of science fiction stories that have this very heroic view of space travel, and I've always questioned that. If we have not been able to care for our planet properly, do we have the moral right to spread our species across the universe or the galaxy? Does that raise an ethical question, or a moral question? We created points of view in the characters. Not everybody here is like, "We have to colonize, and we have to spread out." Some people are like, "I think that's a bad idea. I'm not sure we should do that." So it allowed us to start to put a bunch of people, especially in our group of scientists who were on this mission, with different perspectives. We can debate some of that stuff and peel back some of the greater themes. That's what's so fun about science fiction. It's about a mission in space, but it's also about us here on Earth and what we're doing and why we're doing it. It allows us to turn the mirror back on society a little bit.

How closely did you work with George?

He wasn't involved in the breaking of the story. We went off and did what we did, and then he read a very early version of the pilot and was extremely positive about it. With that said, I don't know if you've been made aware of this, but he's kind of busy right now. (Laughs.) We're lucky when we get his attention for very short periods of time, and we didn't take him away from your favorite show, let's put it that way. We are all fans of all of his work, and looking forward to seeing more material from that world. Believe me, nobody wants to mess with anything in Westeros. 

For George, and he could speak to this, I think he was very excited about the direction we took. There were a few things. Obviously, they had made a film of the novella before. There had been a few things in the early publication of the story and then in the treatment of the film that he liked, and there were some things that he's [spoken out against] very openly, [such as] the white-washing of Melantha, the character played by Jodie Turner Smith. We were very cognizant of what George wanted in some elements, and then there were some parts of the storytelling where we just went off and went crazy. But if you look at the novella, it basically spans this season, and I would say we are very true to the spirit of the novella. Within that, we found areas where we could expand things. 

I had a conversation with George about the evolution of this story, because he initially wrote it as a 23,000 word story. It was very successful and the publisher came back to him and said, "Can you expand it to 30,000?" And he went back into it and added a lot of character work. I've read both versions of the story and looked at the differences in how he went from one to the other, and then there was the movie script which tweaked and changed some things, and then now, we're at this juncture where the TV series comes along. I always have seen it as an ongoing evolution of a world that he created the seed of, which has now taken sprout. I think we were very true to the spirit of what he was getting at, and we just built upon on it.

Nightflyers will unfold over the course of two weeks. Can you speak to the philosophy behind the release strategy?

We all know the way audiences consume television is changing rapidly, and there's an opportunity here for people to dig into the mysteries of the story without having to wait week after week. We premiere on December 2, and then each night there's a new episode released for the next five nights. From Sunday through Thursday, we're running episodes one through five, and then there will be marathons on Syfy, and over the weekend people can consume the show at their own speed on all platforms. The second week, starting December 9, we run episode six through ten, a new episode every night, leading up to our finale on December 13. Within the first two weeks of December, you'll be able to go to any Syfy platform and watch the whole series. It's really gratifying for science fiction audiences who want to get to the answers. They want to dig into the mysteries, and they want to meet these people. They want to spend some time with them. If you're busy and you want to record for a few nights and then dig into three in one night, it allows you to pick and choose when you want to do it. 

I really hope it connects. It's a fun way to consume this particular story because there's a high density of mystery. It's a really fun show to watch a few episodes in a row, because there's a lot of crazy twists and turns. It's very addictive in that way. I also think there's a history for Syfy doing this. It's sort of a classic release strategy from back in the day, when they did things like Steven Spielberg's [2002 miniseries] Taken. They made a name for doing these events. I think there's an opportunity to leverage the Syfy brand with this release strategy. I think it feels classic and it feels modern. It's a nice hybrid between traditional linear TV, which tends to get lost in just the density of stories out there. It's very difficult to break through. 

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