'Nightflyers': TV Review

Don't expect 'Game of Thrones,' despite the pedigree.
12/2/2018

Some interesting biotechnological paranoia keeps Syfy's George R.R. Martin adaptation from feeling like just another "haunted house in space" take on the genre, but only barely.

Syfy is eager to push the George R. R. Martin connection when it comes to its new drama Nightflyers, boasting that the series is based on Martin's novella of the same name and that the Game of Thrones creator serves as executive producer.

What, however, should fans of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire work bring as expectations for a sci-fi series adapted from a novella written back in 1980 that has basically nothing in common with Martin's Westeros-centric writing in terms of tone, genre, characterization or recognizable approach?

It would be hard to know. Martin's name is simply a better hook than associations with the underseen 1987 film, still of the same name, or a more practical approach that would just be to say that if you're a fan of spaceship-as-haunted-house sci-fi, Nightflyers is one of those.

Decently cast, interestingly claustrophobic and boasting occasional tiny bursts of inspiration, Nightflyers isn't going to suddenly hook those broad Game of Thrones demos, but there's an audience out there that's always thirsty for hard sci-fi and this is for them.

Syfy is premiering Nightflyers in a pair of Sunday-through-Thursday five-night bursts starting on December 2. The network calls this a "fan-forward viewing experience," which is definitely a network-forward alternative to calling it a "two-week dump in early December."

The pilot, directed by Mike Cahill (Another EarthRise) and written by Jeff Buhler, has an ad-free running time of nearly an hour and introduces some of the team aboard The Nightflyer. It's 2093 and waves of a deadly disease have made Earth close to uninhabitable, so The Nightflyer is heading into the farthest reaches of space in hopes of making first contact. Astrophysicist Karl D'Branin (Eoin Macken) believes that after they pass through something called The Void, they're going to encounter a specific set of advanced alien beings. Nobody, including xenobiologist Rowan (Angus Sampson), necessarily believes what Karl is selling, but they're out of options and they're so desperate that Captain Roy Eris (David Ajala), who prefers interacting with his crew via hologram, has authorized the presence of a dangerously powerful psychic named Thale (Sam Strike), a so-called "L1" controllable only by a psychiatrist (Gretchen Mol's Agatha), who naturally happens to be Karl's ex.

The theory is that Thale's ability to get into people's heads might extend to aliens, which might be fine and well except that Thale is very poorly socially integrated and prone to making strangers see nightmarish visions. And what if Thale isn't the only person or thing on The Nightflyer warping and disorienting reality?

From Alien to Event Horizon to YouTube Premium's new drama Origins, the genre-bending tropes Nightflyers is playing with are more than familiar. The Nightflyer is a vast ship and, from the outside, it looks like a carefully engineered marvel. Inside, however, it's the same labyrinth of underlit hallways, exposed metallic piping that seem to dominate every vessel, the same clanging and echoing passages and foreboding sliding doors that hermetically seal like the shutting of a coffin. You know that very soon, characters will start hearing voices filtering through those halls, so what a sad coincidence that Karl arrives on board still nursing psychic wounds from the death of a young daughter. Over five episodes sent to critics, Nightflyers layers in the creepiness, without rising above "unsettling" into "scary." Even if attempted jump-cut scares never sink in, Nightflyers sometimes replaces frights with low-level gross-out moments.

If the show has a point of semi-innovation, it's the nearly Cronenberg-esque interest in the blending of technology and biology, unfortunately delivered without a Cronenberg-esque sense of how to visualize these big ideas. Israeli actress Maya Eshet brings an otherworldly oddness to her role as Lommie, a cyberneticist who communicates with the ship by physically jacking herself into the computers through an implanted portal in her arm, an act of penetration that stops short of being explicitly sexual only because the show is scared to follow its dominant metaphors down the rabbit hole. The same is true in a later episode in which biological matter and human tissue are discovered in a place such bloody, sinewy business definitely doesn't belong. The show is, instead, much more comfortable with the idea of The Nightflyer as a sort of traveling memory palace, starting with the small memory chambers that are my favorite piece of the show's production design, and expanding through the entire ship in ways that become increasingly less distinctive.

It's a war that Nightflyers is constantly waging between the material that feels original, usually kept along the fringes, and central conflicts and characters that you've seen dozens of times. You can practically see these creative divisions materializing as you read through a roster of writers and producers that includes showrunner Buhler, scribe behind upcoming remakes of Jacob's Ladder and Pet Sematary, TV veterans like Daniel Cerone, unpredictable eccentrics like Doug Liman and interesting younger voices like 12 Monkeys co-creator Terry Matalas.

It's perhaps why Karl, the latest in a too-long string of astronauts grieving their dead children in space, is the show's main character and his chemistry-deficient relationship with Agatha is its main relationship. Macken is at least mournfully effective, with Mol providing regular reminders that as wonderful as she can be when she gets to rise to the level of material, she's not an actress capable of redeeming stilted dialogue. They're the traditionalist focuses of a show that has more off-beat and unpredictable characters in Eshet's Lommie, Ajala's Captain Eris and in Jodie Turner-Smith's genetically altered Melantha, who are part of a love triangle with enough elements of voyeurism and sexual and gender fluidity to make it something I'd never seen before. A shambling, slightly crazed Sampson, the yet-to-be-explained oddness of Brian F. O'Byrne as the ship's engineer and the working-class danger of Strike's Thale are also all more compelling than the duo Nightflyers is too enamored with.

The ship could, in fact, be positively loaded with better characters. We're just not meeting them. Despite external shots that illustrate how vast The Nightflyer is, by the fourth or fifth episodes the show is inhabiting only two or three rooms within the vessel and a crew that in theory could be hundreds or thousands is reduced to background duty or invisibility. This could be meant as a mirror on the insularity and isolation felt by the main characters or it could be budget-consciousness, just as the premiere schedule for Nightflyers could be fan-friendly innovation or a December dump. Maybe the other inhabitants of the series will get to show off by the fourth or fifth season? Viewers who are likely to see truncated Syfy dramas like Helix and The Expanse as this show's most comparable companions may feel concerned.

Cast: Eoin Macken, David Ajala, Gretchen Mol, Jodie Turner-Smith, Angus Sampson, Sam Strike, Maya Eshet, Brían F. O'Byrne

Creator: Jeff Buhler from the novella by George R. R. Martin

Showrunner: Daniel Cerone

Episodes air Sunday, December 2 through Thursday, December 6 and Sunday, December 9 through Thursday, December 13 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.