Nightflyers starts out well enough with “All That We’ve Left Behind”, but despite repurposing every genre trope in the book, it doesn’t have much of an identity of its own just yet.
This recap of Nightflyers Episode 1, “All That We’ve Left Behind”, contains spoilers.
The latest work of George R. R. Martin to be given the small-screen treatment is his novella Nightflyers – a story he actually finished, although admittedly it took him a few goes. After a 1987 feature-film adaptation, the sci-fi-horror-hybrid has found its way, fittingly, onto SyFy, and all ten episodes are being released in the next week or so for reasons that are entirely unclear to me.
The setup, as explained in the premiere, “All That We’ve Left Behind”, is as follows. In the year 2093, the good starship Nightflyer ranges into the unknown in search of aliens, stocked with a crew of rather predictable genre staples with convenient specialisations and abilities. The reclusive captain is Roy Eris (David Ajala), who lurks in his cabin and just randomly shows up via hologram to peep at people. Lommie (Maya Eshet) is a biologist; Rowan (Angus Sampson) is a xenobiologist. The former can communicate with the ship’s computer, which tends to do things that don’t make much sense, but then again this is science-fiction and that’s what those things do.
The ship’s astrophysicist, Karl D’Branin (Eion Mackin), has a family back home and an ex on the Nightflyer – complicating matters the ex, Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol), is in charge of babysitting a nutcase telepath named Thale (Sam Strike), who is blatantly a dangerous maniac but is brought along anyway in case the extraterrestrials don’t understand English, and also because the show needs an excuse to include a bunch of weird visions, traumatic flashbacks and unpleasant imagery, which Thale can just beam into people’s heads. So he’s doubly useful.
You’ll have noticed, I’m sure, that this stuff is all straight out of the genre playbook, cribbing iconic bits of sci-fi and horror classics and playing the beats to an all-too-familiar TV rhythm. It’s hardly revolutionary or surprising or distinct, but it’s finely-tuned pulpy stuff full of jump-scares and nightmare imagery and the whole shebang. It’s quite obviously generously funded, too, which helps to give the noirish setting some visual panache. The hour-long “All That We’ve Left Behind” slipped along quite easily, despite chewing through a decent amount of rote setup and exposition. It helped that the flash-forward opening betrayed the fates of a couple of major characters, so there’s some immediate mystery and suspense to be found here.
The question, obviously, is whether or not it’ll all coalesce into something sustainable for ten episodes. The classic influences of Nightflyers are fun to spot but won’t be forever, while the thus-far functional character writing needs to flesh out the crew so that we care when they inevitably all die or turn evil or whatever. And personally, I’d like to see Nightflyers take some risks with its tried-and-true formula, especially with its episodes being released virtually back to back. The lull-shock-lull structure will become very tired very quickly if it’s rigidly adhered to, and nobody wants that kind of predictability in a show built on suspense and surprise. Time will tell. But “All That We’ve Left Behind” provides just enough reasons to sign up for the voyage.
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