Adapted from a pre-Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin novella, Nightflyers is a SyFy channel show now available on Netflix. It follows the journey of a space ship called the Nightflyer. Its job is to transport a team of scientists from Earth past the solar system. Their mission is to travel into the unexplored ‘void’. And the hope is to make contact with what might be an alien intelligence. With strong horror tropes, the show takes heavy influence from other space horror movies like ‘Event Horizon’ and ‘Alien’. However, it mixes it up with plenty of sci-fi thriller elements.
The show grabs you immediately by showing a terrified woman fleeing for her life aboard the Nightflyer. She hides and makes a recording warning whoever hears it to stay away from the ship. Unfortunately, it is interrupted by a psychotic axe-wielding maniac who chases and hacks away at her. Grim! She gets the message into space and swiftly slices open her own throat and her blood arcs up a glass panel. As opening sequences go, the tone is set very quickly! We then rewind several months and get to meet the rest of the crew. They include a much calmer and friendlier version of the previously seen attacker.
Some general backstory is laid down for character motivations which fade in and out of focus as the show progresses. Lead scientist, Karl D’Branin played by Eoin Macken, has left behind his wife and child on Earth. He is desperate to make contact with what appears to be far out alien life, dubbed ‘the Volcryn’. As he hopes that superior intelligence may be able to provide a cure for a global virus that is killing humanity. Accompanying him are the genetically enhanced Melanthia (Jodie Turner-Smith) and future axe-murderer to be (but right now xenobiologist) Rowan. There is also the computer terminal operator Lommie, played by Maya Eshet. She delves into virtual reality via an implant in her arm. And lastly, the feared and powerful psychic, Thale who is accompanied by his handler, Agetha.
With this mixed bunch, the series has licence to shift between genres throughout. It starts off very ‘Event Horizon’ in that the ship itself seems out to attack our gang of characters. Mysterious visions and strange fatal ‘accidents’ plague the mission. Captain Roy Eris (David Ajala) refuses to show himself. Instead, he controls the action via a hologram projection which adds to the sense of ‘what can we trust’ unease.
However, as the plot progresses we move on to body horror, psychological torment, science fiction false realities and cult mentality fear. Especially when the crew stumble across a long forgotten ship that has somehow survived without food, but is missing all the male crew members…
For the most part, these elements work well in seclusion. Even in the limited run of 10 episodes, the main plot can run out of steam. This leads to some episodes that are entirely self-contained, seemingly to fill up the run time. Yes, it can be annoying to have a mystery go on endlessly. But Nightflyers missteps early by quickly explaining why the ship is apparently trying to attack its own crew. It effectively kills the well-built tension up to this point.
Nightflyers is helped a lot by the knowledge that the crew are going to a specific destination for a specific purpose. And the episodic dalliances into ultimately redundant plot lines are not too distracting. But, that said, it does suffer from making sudden and unexplained leaps of logic. When a deadly fungus results in a quarantine lockdown we get no detail as to what actually caused the pathogen. The whole thing smacks of ‘we needed to move the plot along’. Murderous rampages are totally forgiven in less than half an hour’s screen time, breaking believability. Nightflyers throws a powerful sacrifice into the mix but utterly fails to justify it, so the scares often give way to disappointed puzzlement.
The cast all deliver fine performances. Eshet’s Lommie lights up the screen with her mixture of vulnerability and determination. The show looks absolutely stunning even with the sci-fi’s limitations of ‘yet another metal corridor’. There are plenty of visual flares and shot filling effects to make the sense of unease palatable throughout. Once we finally come face to face with the Volcryn themselves, the light show on display is satisfyingly otherworldly and impressive.
It does have its flaws and sometimes succumbs to leapfrogging over an interesting point purely to get the plot to move. But Nightflyers is mostly unsettling enough to entertain and is certainly a visual feast. It has since been cancelled which is a shame because it could have gotten going after laying this groundwork. Nevertheless, you can enjoy it as a self-contained and periodically scary slice of deep space fear.
Words by Michael Record