SERIES REVIEW – Based on the novel by George R.R. Martin, The Nightflyers is about to be pulled from Netflix. The latest project from the creator of Game of Thrones promises a thrilling space adventure where nightmares become reality. The unique atmosphere and characters of the series will leave a deep impression, while the science fiction elements will be excitingly combined with psychological drama.
Coming to Netflix on 14 December, this sci-fi horror series is a bit like Alien, and while it’s not a perfect show, fans of the genre should get their hands on the ten episodes before it’s gone. Netflix has also proudly attached George R.R. Martin’s name to Nightflyers, pointing out that the series is based on Martin’s novel of the same name and that the creator of Game of Thrones is executive producing.
But what can fans of Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice expect from a sci-fi series based on a 1980 novel that has little in common with Martin’s Westeros-centric writings in terms of mood, genre, characterisation or recognisable approach?
Don’t expect a ‘Game of Thrones’-like experience, even though Martin is behind the show.
Martin’s name is simply a better marketing gimmick than a link to the little-known 1987 film of the same name, or a more practical approach that would simply state that if you like sci-fi that depicts the spaceship as a ‘digital haunted house’, then Nightflyers is just that.
With a superb cast, stunningly cramped spaces and the occasional moment of inspiration, Nightflyers may not immediately win over Game of Thrones’ wide fan base, but it will certainly find an audience hungry for serious science fiction, and that’s who this show is for.
Martin predicted deadly epidemics back in 1980…
The story is set in the year 2093, and with Earth nearly uninhabitable due to a wave of deadly diseases, The Nightflyer sets out for the far reaches of space in hopes of making first contact. Astrophysicist Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken) believes that after passing through something known as The Nothing, they will encounter a specific, advanced alien being. No one, including xenobiologist Rowan (Angus Sampson), really believes what Karl claims, but they have no other options and are so desperate that Captain Roy Eris (David Ajala), who prefers to interact with his crew via hologram, has authorized the presence of a dangerously powerful psychic, Thale (Sam Strike), who is a so-called “L1” and can only be controlled by a psychiatrist (played by Gretchen Mol as Agatha), Karl’s ex-girlfriend.
The theory is that Thale’s ability to enter people’s minds could work against alien beings, which sounds great, except that Thale’s social integration is poor and he tends to project nightmarish images onto others. But what if Thale isn’t the only one aboard the Nightflyers capable of distorting and subverting reality?
From Alien to Event Horizon or the video game Dead Space, the genre elements used by the Nightflyers are all very familiar. The Nightflyer appears to be a giant ship, a carefully designed marvel from the outside. Inside, however, there are the same labyrinthine, dark corridors, protruding metal tubes, echoing passageways, and emergency sliding doors that sound like the closing of a coffin. Soon the characters hear voices echoing through the corridors as Karl still mourns the loss of his young daughter. The Nightflyers continually ratchets up the tension, but never reaches a truly frightening level. Although the scary scenes experimenting with sudden cuts don’t really work, the show sometimes replaces the horror with unexpectedly disgusting sequences.
If there’s anything new in the series, it’s an interest in the intertwining of technology and biology, though unfortunately these grand ideas are not presented in a way worthy of Cronenberg. Israeli actress Maya Eshet develops a unique character in Lommie, a cyberneticist who communicates with the ship’s computer system through a physical link, a portal implanted in her arm. This intrusion only fails to become explicitly sexual because the show does not dare to follow its dominant metaphors any deeper. In a later episode, when biological material and human tissue are found in a place where they do not belong, the show instead presents the Nightflyer as a traveling palace of memory, from the small memory chambers that are a favorite element of the show’s visual world to a similar, less prominent representation of the ship as a whole.
Balance of characters and conflicts in Nightflyers
Nightflyers is a constant struggle between new content and familiar core conflicts and characters. We sense this creative dichotomy when we look at the list of writers and producers on the show, including showrunner Buhler, the writer of the Jacob’s Ladder and Pet Sematary remakes, seasoned TV pros like Daniel Cerone, unpredictable figures like Doug Liman, and fresh voices like 12 Monkeys co-creator Terry Matalas. This may explain why Karl, one of a long line of astronauts to grieve in space, is at the center of the show, and his relationship with Agatha is the series’ central thread. Macken mourns effectively, and Mol reminds us that acting is no substitute for stiff dialog. But Nightflyers has much more interesting, unusual and unpredictable characters in Eshet’s Lommie, Captain Ajala’s Erise and Jodie Turner-Smith’s genetically modified Melantha, who are part of a love triangle full of voyeurism and gender fluidity never seen before. The stilted, slightly insane Sampson, Brian F. O’Byrne’s oddball role as the ship’s engineer, and Strike Thale’s “working class” danger might have been more appealing than the duo Nightflyers is too enamored of.
The ship could actually be full of better characters, we just don’t meet them. Despite the exterior shots showing how huge the Nightflyer is, by the fourth or fifth episode, the show only uses two or three rooms of the ship, and the crew, which could theoretically number in the hundreds or thousands, is relegated to the background or made invisible. This may reflect the isolation and loneliness of the main characters, or it may have been budget considerations at the time.
Unfortunately, we will never know, because Nightflyers was canceled after the first season, but fortunately it ended relatively normally without any major cliffhangers, so that this single season was absent and entertaining. So, while not perfect, this series is worth a watch for fans of the sci-fi horror genre before it “slips into the black hole” of Netflix.
-Gergely Herpai (BadSector)-