Based on George R.R. Martin’s novella and a series of short stories — and a same-titled 1987 film adaptation — SyFy’s Nightflyers is a encyclopedia of science fiction and horror cinema influences, but despite outstanding production values and some fine sequences of terror and body horror, it succeeds mainly at making you want to revisit the work that inspired it. That SyFy is releasing all ten episodes over the next week and a half, beginning Sunday night, seems like either an attempt to adapt to the Netflix/Amazon era of content dumps, or an admission that this lavishly funded effort is being burned off because it didn’t come out the way the network wanted. It promises to be AMC’s The Terror in space, but only delivers in fits and starts.
Overseen, written, and sometimes directed by Jeff Buhler, the miniseries is set in 2093 on the Nightflyer, a starship leaving the solar system to make first contact with extraterrestrials. The hope is that the aliens will gift us with knowledge that will save the species, even after we’ve soiled our nest back on Earth. “We’re a virus that has killed its host, and we’re looking for a new host to infect,” says Rowan (Angus Sampson), the ship’s xenobiologist.
The first episode flashes forward to a violent stalking incident on board the ship, grabbing the viewer’s attention while telegraphing what’s in store for two key characters. Then it goes back to the beginning of the voyage, showing astrophysicist Karl D’Branin (Eion Mackin) leaving his wife and daughter on Earth to lead the mission. The crew does not inspire confidence. Roy Eris (David Ajala), captain of the Nightflyer, stays locked in his cabin and only appears to the crew as a hologram. Lommie (Maya Eshet) is a gender-fluid biologist with the melancholy, wonderstruck eyes of a silent movie heroine; she can communicate with the onboard computer by jacking its neural network into a forearm port. The statuesque utility infielder Melantha Jhirl (Jodie Turner-Smith) was, we are told, “genetically engineered for space travel,” but is often presented and photographed as a Barbarella-style interstellar sexpot. She comes on to Lommie but gets hot and bothered by Captain Eris, accusing him of peeping on her as she bathes and sleeps, and teasing him for never appearing before her in the flesh.
Captain Eris has authorized a telepath named Thale (Sam Strike) to join them on the trip, along with his handler, Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol), who used to be Karl’s ex. Both Karl and Agatha are dealing with deep recent trauma, which is to Thale as chummed water is to a shark. Supposedly, Thale is on board in case the crew needs to communicate with the extraterrestrials through a means other than spoken language. He makes his entrance packed into a metal storage unit/prison trailer reminiscent of the raptor containers in Jurassic Park, and never misses an opportunity to taunt and glower at other characters while beaming freaky visions into their brains. Bringing somebody like Thale on a mission as important as this seems as inadvisable as bringing a badger in a soft carrier onto a transcontinental flight and storing him beneath the seat in front of you. Meanwhile, the intelligent computer keeps doing things that make life worse for everyone. At one point, a mechanical spider gets loose on the ship and start frying people with its laser-beam eyes. They should have christened this ship the No Plan B.
As always in projects like this, Stanley Kubrick’s influence looms large. But it isn’t just the half-century old classic 2001: A Space Odyssey that gets the homage treatment (a zero-gravity centerfuge jogging session; exteriors of the ring-bedecked ship spinning balletically; a malevolent computer represented by a glowing red eye). The Shining gets a workout as well: The characters are tormented by disembodied voices, nightmare images, and memories of past traumas (like many a movie astronaut, Karl volunteered for the mission to deal with losing a child, who of course shows up wearing a mandatory Don’t Look Now red slicker), also connecting the story to the indestructible sci-fi sub-genre of Haunted House in Space (see Solaris, Alien, Event Horizon, et. al.).
Unfortunately, the show never alchemizes these touchstones into a fresh, distinctive aesthetic. And when projects like this aren’t capable of knocking you out with style, they’d better have vivid characters and a riveting story to fall back on, and that’s not the case here, either. SyFy sent five of the ten episodes of Nightflyers out for review. I watched them all, mainly for the performances (committed — and in Strike and Eshet’s cases, inspired), the tech noir production design (a solid example of Alien-Event Horizon Mope Metal, with hipster hotel accents) and the cinematography, which uses curves, straight edges, and the ovals and cylinders of shipboard lights to create extremely gloomy pop art. The script is a repetitive collection of jump scares and gross-outs that arrive at roughly seven-minute intervals, timed to the rhythm of ad breaks. This has increasingly become the default structure for TV horror, even on commercial-free premium cable and streaming services. It makes sense, format-wise, but it also deprives filmmakers of the option to build and intensify unease over a long period of time, or strategically use boredom to lull viewers into complacency while setting up the next shock. Once you’ve figured out the show’s scare timetable, you might be surprised by what happens, but never again by when.
There’s also the problem of pacing and length. Like too many recent TV series and miniseries, Nightflyers feels as if it’s running out the clock, padding action to fill predetermined time slots rather than because the story actually needs it. There’s a whole episode built around trying to find a character hiding in the bowels of the ship that seems, in retrospect, as if it could’ve been dispensed with in a sequence or two. Characters are seemingly injured or killed only to return again and again. A revelation at the end of episode three is supposed to put a brash new frame around the story, but succeeds only in making the whole thing seem unforgivably silly. I haven’t read Martin’s source material, so I have no idea if the extraterrestrials ever show up, but if they do, I hope they reveal how to get a refund on time.