Thanks to the massive success of Game of Thrones, pretty much anything with George R.R. Martin’s name on it has a strong chance of getting the green light, which is probably why Syfy has made such a gamble on the forgettable sci-fi/horror hybrid Nightflyers. Martin’s 1980 novella was previously adapted in 1987 as a gloriously cheesy low-budget feature, which was probably the perfect length for taking on the story of what is essentially a haunted spaceship. Series creator Jeff Buhler has expanded the story considerably for this 10-hour miniseries, which certainly has a much larger budget than the earlier movie, but often comes across as just as cheesy.
The title refers to the Nightflyer, a sophisticated space-faring vessel in the year 2093, when Earth is plagued by environmental destruction and a vaguely defined virus that is killing large numbers of people. However, that looming apocalypse is merely a background detail for the ship’s mission, which takes some of the urgency out of what the crew is attempting to accomplish. Scientist Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken) is convinced that a mysterious object in deep space is a sign of an alien intelligence known as the volcryn, and he’s equally certain that communicating with, and learning from, the volcryn represents humanity’s only chance for survival (although it's unclear how he came to that conclusion).
So Karl recruits the standard ragtag group of scientists and explorers for a last-ditch space mission, and he convinces the Nightflyer’s reclusive captain, Roy Eris (David Ajala), to give them a ride. The ship is also apparently on some sort of colonization mission, but where it’s going and why is another seemingly important detail that’s dismissed early on, and the number of people onboard seems to fluctuate with the extras budget for each episode. Even the effort to find the volcryn often takes a backseat to the other dangerous occurrences on the vessel, which begin as soon as it’s launched from Earth orbit.
One of Karl’s other half-baked ideas involves recruiting a dangerous telepath (referred to as an “L1”) for help with contacting the volcryn, despite no evidence this will be an effective strategy. Thale (Sam Strike) is introduced as if he’s Hannibal Lecter, with the crew afraid of even getting near him, but he behaves more like a petulant teenager, using his ill-defined powers for pranks and lewd come-ons, or to make sure that he's left alone. Still, strange, violent events begin once he’s onboard, and it’s clear that some sort of entity is torturing and even killing some members of the Nightflyer crew. Is it related to Roy’s insistence on only appearing via holographic projection, while remaining locked in his quarters? Is it perhaps a communication from the volcryn? Or is it really Thale’s fault after all?
The first five episodes provide multiple answers to those questions, and just like the ship’s various missions, the explanations for the horrific incidents are muddled and inconsistent. The first episode opens with a striking flash-forward that finds xenobiologist Rowan (Angus Sampson), seemingly possessed or otherwise deranged, stalking around the ship with an ax, as psychologist Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol) frantically tries to send out a warning to anyone who might attempt a rescue. Those few minutes are more suspenseful and exciting than anything else in the five episodes provided for review, which often undercut potential cliffhangers by muddying the stakes.
In stretching out a novella into 10 hour-long episodes, the show’s writers have added numerous subplots, including several romantic entanglements that seem designed to add the kind of sexiness that viewers expect from Game of Thrones. Despite the plentiful swearing, though, this is still a basic-cable show, and the sex scenes are as dissatisfying as the frequent fake-out near-death sequences. The performances are inconsistent, with Macken as the weakest link, and all of the actors have trouble selling the stilted dialogue full of techno-babble and clichéd pronouncements (“Do I need to remind you of the stakes?” Karl snaps in an early episode).
The special effects are inconsistent as well, sometimes impressively detailed and other times patently fake-looking, and the ship’s design is drab and unoriginal. The crew members also might be less cranky if they had some better lighting: Every corridor and compartment is so dimly lit that it’s a surprise the characters aren’t constantly squinting. The costumes are some of the silliest-looking “futuristic” fashions on television, with multiple layers of turtlenecks, single-sleeved shirts and oddly cut garments that rival the shoulder-pads-and-mullets fashion sense of the 1987 movie. On the bridge, the ship is controlled by what looks like a giant iPad bolted to the floor.
And yet the show takes itself completely seriously, without even the minimal comic relief offered on Game of Thrones. This is definitely not the sci-fi version of Game of Thrones, however, and the world-building is as thin as the character development. Like YouTube Premium’s similar recent series Origin, Nightflyers recalls “doomed deep-space mission” movies from Silent Running to Solaris to Sunshine, with Paul W.S. Anderson’s cult classic Event Horizon as the most obvious touchstone. But while Anderson brought a sense of pulp excitement to Origin, Nightflyers is just dreary and plodding. Simply having Martin’s name in the opening credits isn’t enough to make it worth tuning in.
Premiering Sunday, Dec. 2, at 10 p.m. on Syfy, Nightflyers stars Gretchen Mol as Dr. Agatha Matheson, Eoin Macken as Karl D’Branin, David Ajala as Roy Eris, Sam Strike as Thale, Maya Eshet as Lommie, Angus Sampson as Rowan, Jodie Turner-Smith as Melantha Jhirl and Brían F. O’Byrne as Auggie.