Nightflyers is proof that not everything George R. R. Martin touches is gold.
In reality, of course, Martin had nothing whatsoever to do with Syfy’s adaptation of his 1980 novella, already adapted into a low-budget movie in 1987. What with being busy (not) writing the next Game of Thrones novel ‘The Winds of Winter’ and developing half a dozen other projects, Martin just gets a vaunted ‘Executive Producer’ credit on this adaptation, an honorific title at best. You wonder had he been more directly involved, Nightflyers might have turned into more than just grim, soulless science-fiction.
The premise, established in the first episode of ten ‘All That We Left Behind’, is certainly interesting. In 2093, with the Earth in danger of collapse and humanity at risk, a team of scientists embark on an experimental ship, the Nightflyer, to make contact with a mysterious alien life force who might be able to help save them. So far, so Interstellar. Dragged aboard with this rag-tag group is Thale (Sam Strike), a powerful, malevolent telepath who, when people start having disturbing visions and the ship is sabotaged, is suspected of trying to kill them, and the situation just gets worse from there.
That’s when Nightflyers becomes less Interstellar, more like Interstellar crossed with the vicious nihilism of James Watkins’ Eden Lake.
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Thale, you see, talks like dat tho, innit bruv? Strike hams it up as pure Cockney chav while surrounded by a range of rather sanguine and dull Americans who all play the entire thing VERY SERIOUSLY. Many of them are just pure cliche. Karl (Eoin Macken), a boring astrophysicist who recently suffered the loss of his daughter; Agatha (Gretchen Mol), a boring psychiatrist who is trying to mentor Thale – the list goes on. The reclusive (and a *bit* pervy) Captain Eris (David Ajala) is intriguing but most of them deliver boiled up, chewed science-fiction dialogue without any relish.
The sad thing is that it starts in media res, which is always a brave choice, and immediately makes you wonder if the doom-laden flash-forward to a future point of horror, involving what appears to be the death of a main cast member, will establish Nightflyers as a series riven with the kind of anxious dread we saw in a show such as Hannibal, which began its brilliant second season in a very similar way. Throughout the first episode, however, it becomes clear that Nightflyers will not be capable of the same kind of invention. It is, very quickly, a dour and morose slog of a first episode.
Putting aside Strike’s godawful performance which makes Thale less of a terrifying psychic villain and more like he’s walked off the set of a Danny Dyer bargain basement British gangster film, nothing about Nightflyers inspires. Everything feels re-heated from a dozen science-fiction films and TV shows of the past, from the Earth-in-peril exploration of the aforementioned Interstellar to the alien enigma of Prometheus, yet Nightflyers retains none of the nuance, characterisation or wonder of those films. It is simply, from the outset, a glum experience.
The point should be underlined here that not all science-fiction has to be bright, breezy and forward thinking. Not everything should be Star Trek. Nightflyers is a depressing experience and speaks more to the lack of invention on display in how science-fiction is currently being portrayed. This just recycles tropes and ideas on display a thousand times before and attempts to present them as something different simply due to the connection of the distant author who initially created this world. If you’re schooled in science-fiction, you won’t buy it.
Truthfully, Nightflyers will probably appeal more to people who enjoy horror as much, if not even more, as sci-fi. The opening scene is right out of Stephen King rather than George R.R. Martin. There’s a chance this could develop into a modern Event Horizon if that film had shown the destructive degradation of the original crew, but on the evidence of a languid, dour and overlong first episode, this seems unlikely. In its attempts to be dark and meaningful, along the way it forgot to be fun.
Nightflyers feels, therefore, like a project for George R.R. Martin devotees only but, be warned, this is no song of ice or fire.
Nightflyers: Season 1 is now available on Netflix.