If you’ve been following the reviews of Syfy’s Nightflyers, based on the novella by George R. R. Martin, then you already know how this one is going to end: in a bloody mess. But like the show itself, I’m going to start with the ugly conclusion and rewind. Or, if you prefer a gorier analogy, we’re going to conduct an autopsy on this corpse to see which organs failed.
Why bother? Because if you’re interested in good storytelling, Nightflyers offers a useful illustration of some basic pitfalls to avoid.
The show starts off with a bang: A woman hiding from an ax-wielding maniac dictates a panicked message into a recording device. “We have sustained fatalities. Structural damage…” Identifying herself as Dr. Agatha Matheson, she warns the listener not to board the Nightflyer, and above all not to bring the ship back to Earth. She’s just about to send the message when the ax-wielding maniac jumps her, but Agatha manages to fend him off long enough to send her message out the airlock. Then she grabs a bone saw and opens her own throat. Cue opening credits.
Over-used as this device may be, it’s an effective set-up. We know something terrible is going to happen on this ship, but what? Biohazard? Evil aliens? Evil infectious aliens? We have questions. At this stage, questions are good.
They come thick and fast in that first episode, all of them pointing to intriguing little mysteries. There’s the captain, Roy Eris, who only appears to the crew as a holographic projection with highly questionable fashion sense. Meanwhile, he seems to be spying on everyone through red-eyed cameras reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And hey, speaking of malevolent AI, fatal malfunctions are occurring all over the ship and nobody can figure out why. Meanwhile, mission leader Karl D’Branin is having creepy, Shining-esque visions of his dead daughter. It seems as if the ship itself is trying to kill them—and also drive them crazy?
This is essentially the premise of the original novella, and it’s a good one. But like the Nightflyer itself, the show starts malfunctioning pretty quickly. The issues with this show are too many to mention, but they can be boiled down to four basic storytelling mistakes.
Unclear story goals
The most fundamental issue with Nightflyers is that it drifts through space without a clear destination. That’s because we never really understand what the crew are up to in the first place. We know the basics: Karl D’Branin and his team are trying to make contact with the alien Volcryn in order to save humanity. Trouble is, we’re told very little about the problem on Earth, and even less about how the Volcryn are going to solve it. The show employs a whole lot of jazz hands to distract from this—things appear and disappear, there’s some pretty pink space glitter, and D’Branin has a number of intently-whispered speeches about the Volcryn having Awesome Powerz—but it’s never really explained what these abilities are or how they will be useful to humanity. Even the psychic Thale, who says the Volcryn spoke “so clearly” to him, never tells us what they said. Instead we get a series of space pictures that looks like a slide show from the Juno probe.
Look, I’m all for magic and mystery. It’s fine for the Volcryn themselves to remain unfathomable, but our heroes’ motivations need to be clear. What does Karl hope (rightly or wrongly) to get from these aliens that he’s willing to put his life, and those of his team, on the line? Why are his colleagues willing to go along with it?
Which brings us to the next problem.
Disposable characters and shallow relationships
Disposable characters are a staple of horror and sci-fi, often for good reason. The Nightflyer is a haunted spaceship, and this is based on a novella by George R. R. Martin, so I fully expected a bunch of unfortunate red shirts to bite it early and often. I did not expect the same poor bastard to be almost-killed a comical number of times, only to be put in “regen” so he could go through it all again, like some outer space version of Kenny from South Park. (Maybe they ran out of money and couldn’t afford any more actors?) Anyway, unintentionally amusing as that was, Kenny wasn’t my real problem. The issue here was that many of the show’s supposed emotional punches never landed, because I wasn’t invested enough in the characters or the relationship to care.
Take Mel’s romantic entanglements. These are probably important, because as far as I can tell Mel doesn’t have any real job on the ship other than to dress like a Solid Gold Dancer and engaging in “sexing” with her fellow crewmates. Both of her shipboard romances—with Lommie, the computer tech, and Roy, the captain—turn out to be ill-fated, but because we spend so little time on either relationship, I didn’t really care. Which means that what screen time we did spend on them was wasted.
Then there’s the bee lady, Tessia, whose sole purpose in the narrative is to serve as someone else’s motivation—specifically, to die horribly in order for her man to be really, really sad about it. For that to have an impact, though, we need to care about Tessia and feel invested in her situation, but that’s pretty hard to do when the entire relationship occurs off stage. She and Rowan have scarcely met before we fast forward eight months (!) and suddenly they’re a couple and very pregnant and then Tessia gives birth and the baby dies and Tessia dies and this all happens in the same episode and then Rowan is so sad that he becomes an ax murderer. There’s lots of screaming and crying and some genuinely disturbing visuals, but the impact is blunted by Tessia being a virtual stranger to us. (Also by the fact that Rowan instantly gets better and his mates are like, “All good, bro, these things happen.”)
On top of which, I’m not clear what the evil space spores that killed Tessia and her baby have to do with anything, which brings me to the third big problem.
Random plot points and an overall lack of continuity
There were so many moments in this show where it seemed as if the scriptwriters had lost the plot—literally. Like, someone took his script notes down on his iPhone and then he dropped that iPhone in the toilet at Danny’s farewell and he went back to his table and was going to tell his colleagues what happened but he was too embarrassed so he did a shot of Jager and scribbled something down on a coaster and typed it up ten minutes before deadline.
Take, for example, the space spores that kill Tessia and her baby. Why does this plot point even exist? It seems to be offered as a reason for Rowan to go nuts, but since we’ve already established that the ship is making people crazy, I’m not sure why this trauma is required. (Who am I kidding? It’s because we need an Action Moment and obviously this means someone has to die and what better way to motivate male characters than with dead daughters [Karl], dead lovers [Auggie], dead wives and daughters [Rowan], dead mothers [Roy] and ARE YOU SENSING A THEME? Do better, Syfy.)
For me, giving Rowan more of a “reason” to go crazy lets some of the air out of that opening scene—you remember, the one where he’s chasing Agatha and she cuts her own throat? On top of which, it turns out that Agatha’s reasons in this scene are completely different than we imagined too. When I first watched that scene, I assumed she was afraid of succumbing to the same madness, or at least that she’d rather die by her own hand than fall to an ax murderer. Turns out, her suicide had nothing to do with either of those things. (It was about psychic feedback and… IDK, something-something jazz hands.) In which case, the message she dictates makes a whole lot less sense.
Did the writers change their minds about what was going on in this scene after the fact? There were a number of moments like this, where it felt as if storytelling decisions were being made on the fly with little attempt to reconcile new ideas with past intentions. These zigzags would have bothered me less if I had a better sense of the overall story goals (see problem 1 above), but without it, the whole plot seems rudderless.
Then there’s Episode 6, about which the less said the better, except that it had literally nothing to do with the rest of the show. Maybe that guy who dropped his iPhone in the toilet had just finished binge-watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Which brings me to my last point…
Shallow use of genre tropes
Nightflyers doesn’t shy away from calling attention its influences. In fact, it’s about as subtle as an ax-wielding maniac. Episode 6 is basically The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse, which would be obvious enough without all the “praise be” and “blessed be the seed”. Yes, really.
Kubrick looms especially large, with the red-eyed HAL cameras and the Shining-esque visions of dead little girls. In case you missed it, we actually have the aforementioned ax-wielding maniac giving us the all work and no play line from that Stephen King movie.
And yet for all that, the influence of these works feels completely superficial. The show calls upon Kubrick often, but it’s a failed séance: his spirit never arrives. That creeping sense of dread, of being dragged toward an inexorable and bloody conclusion, is absent. Building that sort of atmosphere requires patience and restraint; instead we get jump scares and wet noodle gore. Also lacking is any sense of the big, existential questions that good sci-fi urges us to grapple with. It’s as if the makers of the show wanted to establish their genre cred, but all they really achieved in calling these works to mind was to illustrate how their own falls short.
They mess up the details too, the sorts of things that drive any nerd crazy. I could write a whole essay on the biohazard protocols of these so-called scientists. The technology is inconsistent and confusing (no time lag in their comms back to Earth until suddenly there is, and I’m still not clear why we have axes and laser spiders on the same ship). The examples are too many to list here, but if pointing out silly mistakes is your thing, this show is for you.
It’s a shame, because the elements of a great show are there. The bone structure of Martin’s novella is a good one. The set is impressive, the visuals pretty, and many of the performances are genuinely excellent. What’s missing is a coherent vision and the storytelling discipline to bring it to fruition.
So, will there be a Season 2? I’m not sure what to hope for. Part of me is rooting for them to find a head writer who can shepherd this wayward flock to a real destination. Another part, though, thinks that Nightflyers should be left to drift along, lost in space.
Erin Lindsey writes fantasy, mystery, and fantasy mystery. Her latest, Murder on Millionaires’ Row, is available from Minotaur. You can check out her ramblings on her website or on Twitter @etettensor.