The Pitch: It’s 2093, and the Earth is dying. The crew of the Nightflyer, a bustling human colony ship, is leaving orbit and heading to “The Void” in hopes that they can save it. An alien ship housing a species referred to as “The Volcryn” (a confusing pronunciation for Star Trek fans) is traversing that space, and it’s a long shot, but they may hold the key to fixing our planet.
But the catch is twofold. First, the aliens have ignored all our attempts to contact them, so the humans have reluctantly resorted to enlisting a telepath to help their cause, who may or may not be able to hop on the aliens’ wavelength. Second, in this universe, telepaths are gravely mistrusted after a spate of vaguely-referred-to massacres. So when things start to go terribly wrong on the ship, and main characters and redshirts alike start to experience haunting hallucinations, that mistrust only grows. It quickly becomes apparent that this mission may be doomed before it ever really starts.
Game of Thrones In Space?: With George R. R. Martin’s name featured in the show’s pedigree, it’s natural to wonder how much DNA Nightflyers shares with its Westerosi cousin. The answer is not much. Sure, the series begins with some basic cable blood and guts. And it features some basic cable-level gratuitous sexiness, with some pop psychology tossed in. But for the most part, Nightflyers feels more indebted to Syfy’s own Battlestar Galactica than Game of Thrones. While there are hints of the supernatural and heavy doses of the same mystery box storytelling that seems to afflict every prestige-ish genre show, the locus of Nightflyers’ story is more condensed, its cast of characters more contained, than Martin’s wide-ranging fantasy epic. That both helps and hurts the show, since it makes Nightflyers easier to follow in the early going, but also means there’s far fewer places to jump to when the events in one corner of the eponymous ship start to drag.
Aerospaesthetics: The best thing Nightflyers has going for it are its visuals and texture. While most of the time spent in the ship’s interiors gives you that “everything is a low-lit gray box” feeling, the series flexes its muscle in the exterior shots. The Nightflyer itself is a striking, Kubrickian contraption of a ship, with twirling geodomes and an almost rhythmic design. When the show goes for spacescapes, juxtaposing the ship with a setting sun or launching it out of orbit, you can see where the money and care went.
At the same time, Nightflyers accomplishes something great inside the ship when it goes for more of a horror vibe. When the lightly-unhinged telepath Thale (Sam Strike), or whatever other mysterious force may be affecting the ship, unleashes a psychic attack on the Nightflyer’s crew, the show uses a combination of psychedelic and unnerving images, startling cuts, and visceral sound design to evoke the terror of the moment. While some of the tropes the show deploys are stock at best, the imagery it uses to realize them is more than enough to grab your attention.
The Standard Sci-Fi Toppings Bar: Every science fiction show needs a solid complement of weird/unique/technologically advanced characters to remind the audience that, by god, this is the future. Nightflyers offers at least four, and hints at a few others. There’s the aforementioned Thale, whose psychic powers make him and his kind both scapegoats and pariahs. There’s Melantha (Jodie Turner-Smith) a top crewmember who turns out to be genetically engineered to live and thrive in space. There’s Captain Eris (David Ajala) who only appears to the crew as a hologram and seemingly creeps on them via a shipwide array of cameras and a suspicious, Arrested Development-style surrogate. And finally, there’s Lommie (Maya Eshet) who can commune with the Nightflyer’s computer systems via a built in arm-port. (This is all before you get to the all-too-serene beekeeper and the ill-fated botanist.)
In the early going, most of these personalities feel more like gimmicks than characters. Lommie is given the most dimension and comes out more compelling for it. But as Nightflyers clears its throat, the show seems more interested in having these people deliver exposition or vague teases than actually developing any of them. Even then, these admittedly gimmicky characters are an improvement on the show’s generic leads: Karl (Eoin Macken), a cipher of a scientist with the standard dead kid backstory and a Close Encounters-style curiosity; and Agatha (Gretchen Mol), Thale’s doctor, confidante, and handler, who’s the only person on the ship that sees him as a human being. There’s room for each to grow (and the early episodes suggest an unspoken history between them), but early on Nightflyers mainly focuses on these stock characters, buttressed by a supporting cast with the usual assortment of mix-and-match science fiction attributes.
The Verdict: Nightflyers veers between the mildly intriguing, the painfully dull, and the blandly competent. It toys with solid ideas, like the nature of memory, the fear of the unknown and misunderstood, and the power of the mind. But it buries them all in flavorless clichés and a wash of gunmetal hallways and lame portents. There’s a glut of science fiction concepts at play, which seem poised to crash into one another rather than coalesce into a greater whole, but that at least means the show has plenty of places to go even if the route doesn’t seem particularly inviting out of the gate.
Like seemingly every ten-to-thirteen episode series on television these days, there’s the potential for this show to find itself once it stops merely hinting and actually puts its cards on the table. Maybe then it can explore what it wants to explore, rather than just gesturing toward thinly-defined ideas. In the meantime, however, the series doesn’t offer enough substance behind its teases, or enough characters worth latching onto, to make it worth sticking around to see what Nightflyers may have up its sleeve. The early installments suggest that the titular ship, and its typical set of passengers, should have stayed grounded.
Where’s It Playing?: Nightflyers airs on the Syfy channel, premiering tonight at 10/9c. The show will air all ten episodes of its first season between then and December 13th, with each also available on Syfy.com.