Earlier this year, at New York Comic-Con, Nightflyers creator Jeff Buhler ticked off a list of genre icons that influenced Syfy’s haunted spaceship horrorshow. “We leaned heavily on the shoulders of the greats,” Buhler said. “We were not shy about pulling the themes and even some imagery. There’s a lot of 2001, The Shining, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.”
I’ve seen five episodes of Nightflyers and I can confirm the series—based on the 1980 novella by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin—borrows mightily from all those things, plus a healthy dose of Event Horizon, a smidge of Prometheus, and a salt bae sprinkle of Carrie. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it is a lot of things, which is emblematic of Nightflyers‘ greatest strength and weakness at the same time. The series tries on a lot of masks at once—locked room haunted house, hard sci-fi, space opera, body horror grossout—with only some executed in a satisfying way. One of the worst things a spaceship can be is crowded, and Nightflyers often packs in so many turns that even its best plots can barely breathe. Much like Peter Jackson tried to create three sprawling epics from the 100-ish-page Hobbit, Buhler has tried to craft a Game of Thrones from a 30,000-word novella. The resulting show is a hodgepodge of fascinating concepts bogged down by some tremendously dumb ideas and shaky execution.
As you might have already seen, the show kicks off with a very intriguing, very The Shining-esque scene, with Gretchen Mol‘s Dr. Agatha Matheson being stalked through the Nightflyer by an ax-wielding Angus Sampson. (If genetics count as an Easter Egg, Sampson looks a lot like Stanley Kubrick.) Matheson broadcasts a warning—”Do not board this ship. Do not bring the Nightflyer back to Earth”—before slicing her own neck with a saw, then whap we go back in time to see what brought us to this gory conclusion. It’s 2039 and the Earth is dying thanks to a lack of resources and a mysterious illness sweeping the planet. A crew of scientists board a deep-space ship called Nightflyer in an attempt to make contact with the Volcryn—which will never not sound like Vulcan in these characters’ mumbly mouths—an aloof race of highly-advanced extraterrestrials who managed to harness an energy source unknowable to humans. The crew, as you could imagine, all come with their own secrets and baggage. The mission’s mastermind Karl D’Branin (Eoin Mackin) is leaving a wife and deceased child on Earth. The ship’s captain Roy Eris (David Ajala) has people issues and appears only as a hologram, often to spy on the genetically-enhanced Melantha Jhirl (Jodie Turner-Smith). Dr. Matheson’s main role is to look after Thale (Sam Strike), a telekinetic “L-1” who is brought aboard to communicate with the Volcryn, much to the distaste of the rest of the crew; in the future, an L-1 is more monster than human, not to be trifled with.
So, naturally, Thale is blamed when visions of dead children start running around the Nightflyer hallways and the ship itself, seemingly on its own, starts trying to murder everyone on board.
What’s frustrating is how well Nightflyers works as a straightforward horror show. “It’s the ship. She doesn’t want us to go out there,” a crazed technician says in Episode 3, which is such a great, straightforward, but simple premise. It combines the tried-and-true terrors of being locked in a haunted house that wants you dead and the severe claustrophobia of being thousands of miles from Earth in a tin can. The show uses sound a lot to emphasize this—the roaring vacuum nothingness outside the ship, boots clanking on echoey spaceship hallways—to great results. Strike might be the weakest performance in the cast, but his character’s telekinetic presence does give the writing an excuse to play around with reality, which only adds to that locked box paranoia; what is real, and what is being beamed into your head by an angsty, angry teenage telepath with a grudge?
But the horror aspects are but one spoon in an incredibly crowded pot. Loftier sci-fi philosophizing needs time to simmer, but there’s no room for that in Nightflyers. Themes like the hubris of man, science vs. faith, the unknowability of an advanced alien race are all used like wallpaper on the Nightflyer. And because there’s not really a connective tissue tying all these ideas together or time to properly explore them, the choices characters make often come off as bafflingly out of the blue. Several times throughout the first five episodes, someone—usually D’Branin, ostensibly the main character but a block of wood personality-wise—makes a drastic choice that alters either their lives or the lives of everyone onboard, and it’s usually forgotten by the next scene.
Unfortunately, the worst part of Nightflyers is the explanation. I won’t spoil it, but you do, in the first five episodes, discover what’s driving the ship to go haywire, and the honest-to-goodness best way to describe the twist is…dumb. It’s dumb. It makes these characters, one in particular, seem dumber for the choices they make, and it makes them seem dumber for spending any normal moment aboard that ship after learning the truth. Like most of Nightflyers, it works on a dramatic level—it’s “shocking”, and it results in some chilling horror moments—but not anywhere close to a logical level, a problem when you’re spending time with a crew of geniuses responsible for the fate of mankind.
I can recommend Nightflyers to anyone simply looking for a unnerving ride through the cosmos. It doesn’t break any new ground visually; somewhere along the line the sci-fi gods mandated that all future tales set on Earth must look like Blade Runner (see: Altered Carbon) and the ones set in space must be mostly-grey copies of Battlestar Galactica (see: Origin, Nightflyers). But the cast is largely great, most notably Maya Eshet (Teen Wolf) as Lommie, the ship’s tech wizard who is plugged directly into the Nightflyer’s inner workings through a neural port; Eshet is usually the one carrying the show’s most horrific moments, but she works wonders in the quiet aftermath with a subtle, jittery performance that’s almost all eyes.
But as anything more than that, Nightflyers is a bit like the ship itself, reaching for the furthest reaches of space and holdings itself back at the same time.
Nightflyers premieres Sunday, December 2 at 10pm on Syfy. All 10 episodes will also be available to stream.