In the US: Sunday-Thursday, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Acquired by Netflix
Sometimes, two TV shows turn up at the same time and you wonder why. Are the networks stealing from each other? Are they tying into a trend? Or is it simply coincidence?
In the case of YouTube Premium’s Origin and Syfy (US)’s Nightflyers, I’m going to assume that it’s just coincidence that they’ve turned up within the space of a fortnight of each other. I mean two expensive-looking sci-fi/horror shows set on spaceships that slowly see their international, largely British casts slashed away by something gruesome? That’s not a trend. And why would you steal that idea?
Equally, Nightflyers is based on a novella written by George RR Martin (Beauty and the Beast, Game of Thrones) in 1981 and Origin is essentially Paul WS Anderson ripping off his own Event Horizon and Alien Vs Predator, so it’s not like there’s any real inter-show plagiarism going on. But there’s still a lot more in common than I’ve already mentioned, suggesting either a paucity of ideas in the world or a general consensus we’re heading towards a future dystopian nightmare.
Nightflyers is a generally superior affair compared to Origin that sees the world 50-odd years from now generally going to pot thanks to disease outbreaks and the like. Fortunately, there are spaceships and, equally interestingly, aliens, who might be able to help save us from self-destruction. At least, we think there are aliens, since a spaceship has popped into our solar system. However, despite our bombarding it with signals and probes from afar, the aliens haven’t said so much as a dicky bird in response and are merrily getting on with their lives instead.
Eoin Macken (Merlin, The Night Shift) therefore suggests sending a spaceship off to meet them, the only one within range and ready being the Nightflyer. He populates it with various futuristic sci-fi people: Jodie Turner-Smith (The Last Ship), who’s been genetically engineered for space travel; Maya Eshet, who communicates with the ship’s computer cybernetically; xenobiologist Angus Sampson (Shut Eye) and psychologist Gretchen Mol (Life on Mars, Chance).
However, there’s already a ship’s crew, including engineer Brían F. O’Byrne (The Last Ship, The Magicians, Brotherhood) and captain David Ajala (Falling Water), who for reasons best known to himself only appears as a hologram. Said crew isn’t too chuffed by the new arrivals and having their mission changed; they’re even less chuffed by having a “L-1 Teke” on board (EastEnders‘s Sam Strike) – a telepath who can make you think whatever he wants you to think, whether you like it or not, unless Mol administers him some suppressing drugs. But since the alien spaceship is giving off TK energy, it seems a good idea to take along someone who might be able to communicate with them.
Well, seemed, anyway. Because its not long after Strike turns up that everyone starts having nasty visions. And seeing as the first episode starts with a flashforward to Mol warning no one to rescue the Nightflyer and then slashing her throat, it seems it’s all going to go pear-shaped at some point. But why?
George RR Martin said he wanted to write something that was both a sci-fi story and a horror story, and he’s succeeded on both scores. There’s all manner of sci-fi fun, ranging from cybernetics and Gibson-esque neuromancy through to people having their memories recreated for them.
But on the horror side, while Origin is largely a monster movie, Nightflyers is a haunted house story, albeit one with a lot of slasher aspects. Much of the drama revolves around bad things happening, but then turning out not to have happened, since it was all in the mind after all. Here, we’re to assume that Turner-Smith is messing with everyone, but there are enough undercurrents of Solaris that it could be the aliens or it could equally be another ‘Teke’ on board the ship, giving us a slight hint of the Agatha Christie, too, as we try to work out who it could be.
There are also mysteries to be solved, such as whether Ajala is real or an AI and whether any of what we’re seeing is true or illusory, enhancing that Christie-esque quality. There are personal revelations, too: why did Macken invite his ex, Mol, on the journey and how did his daughter die?
That does at least help the episode to pass in between the spells of gore, which is its main stock in trade. Dispel any hope of a building of tension in the style of the Haunting of Hill House as every scene lasts about three minutes, every shot lasts about five seconds and you can be guaranteed a beating heart dripping blood or a shower near-death experience more or less every other scene.
Not a killer blow
While that general fascination with the icky, painful, bloody and internal organy is a slight mood killer, Nightflyers is nevertheless a reasonably decent show. The mysteries are intriguing enough that I want to find out the answers. The actors are good enough that I care about the characters, even if the scripts don’t. The effects are good enough that I don’t want to laugh.
Nightflyers also does a semi-decent job of creating a future that’s both different and similar to ours. Fashions look a little silly, but then so is anything anyone in Hoxton is wearing right now, so c’est la vie, I guess.
I wish it would slow down and let up a bit. I’d like a bit more characterisation and a bit less gore. But on the whole, a decent start that’s different enough from standard “10 Little Indians in Space” that it feels relatively fresh.
Here’s the opening scene for you to enjoy.