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Should You Watch … George R.R. Martin’s New Show ‘Nightflyers’?

The Syfy series borrows plenty from science-fiction classics (and also ‘Psycho’) but still packs the ‘Game of Thrones’ creator’s distinctive punch

SyFy/Ringer illustration

Thanks in large part to the groundbreaking success of Game of Thrones, the George R.R. Martin Television Universe is beginning to take shape across several networks. In addition to Thrones, HBO is at work on a prequel series (it’s not called The Long Night, no matter what Martin says), while Hulu is close to creating two shows based on the author’s Wild Cards novels. However, the first non-Thrones adaptation has already arrived in Nightflyers, the new Syfy series that will air all 10 of its episodes over the next two weeks.

Based on Martin’s 1980 novella of the same name (Martin is an executive producer on the series), Nightflyers is a far cry from the action in Westeros, obviously in terms of the series’ aesthetics—space-meets-tech-noir production design is about as different as you can get from King’s Landing—but also in terms of its scope. Though Nightflyers hints at the grander machinations of its universe—the series is set in 2093, when Earth is beset by diseases and humans have colonized the moon—the focus is narrowed to a handful of passengers aboard the Nightflyer, a ship that is heading to deep space to make contact with a supposed alien life-form that could hold the key to saving humanity from, well, its own self-destructive tendencies. Those crewmembers include expedition leader Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken), xenobiologist Rowan (Angus Sampson), reclusive Nightflyer captain Roy Eris (David Ajala, always confined to his quarters and interacting with people via hologram), and psychologist Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol).

It’s an interesting premise—if only Nightflyers was more than just a retread of science fiction’s greatest hits. The series is an amalgam of 2001: A Space Odyssey (there’s a circular, zero-gravity jogging track and a seemingly malevolent computer with glowing red eyes), Solaris (the ship is “haunted” and crewmembers experience a series of bizarro visions), and, incredibly, Hitchcock’s Psycho (yes, really, though to say more would spoil the inane surprise). Altogether, Nightflyers is a textbook case of a show borrowing so many tropes from its influences that it fails to be particularly distinctive itself. As a result, Nightflyers has the unintended effect of making you want to stop watching it so you can revisit the works it borrows from.

The things about Nightflyers that don’t necessarily work but are somewhat compelling by virtue of their originality are the strange flourishes to the show’s occasional pieces of world-building. Despite 2093 being not far off, this version of humanity has undergone some surprising physical and psychological changes. In this future, some humans are telepaths, like Thale (Sam Strike), who is brought on board because he might be able to communicate with alien life—and given his psychic abilities, crewmembers frequently pin the blame on him for the strange happenings on the ship. His name might as well be Red Herring. Crewmember Melantha (Jodie Turner-Smith) was genetically modified to survive better in space; for instance, she can handle radiation better than her shipmates. Another person is a beekeeper, except the bees just land on her skin and, according to Thale, all form the same consciousness. (Like I said, this show is strange!)

But perhaps the most fascinating thread of the series is a new type of therapy that humans have begun on Earth, which over time allows people to erase memories. (I guess that, in this respect, Nightflyers is also a slight riff on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) D’Branin’s wife, Joy (Zoe Tapper), is slowly erasing memories of their dead daughter back on Earth, a decision she relays over a few Skype-like video chats. Of the many intended scares conjured by Nightflyers’ creepy ship, that Joy casually informs her husband she’s going to delete memories of their honeymoon—because they went back to the area with their daughter several times—carries actually terrifying implications. The plot point is Black Mirror–esque, raising questions of what makes us human and how our impulses sometimes bring out the worst in us. It’s the best of what Martin’s works can accomplish: World-building that makes you want to discover more alongside a cynical view of humanity, packaged around twists and several bloody deaths.

And that’s the thing about Nightflyers: We’re confined to the ship, while its most fascinating threads unspool elsewhere. In a flash-forward, a frightened crewmember records a frantic message, pleading that nobody else board the Nightflyer. Here’s your warning to do the same.

Should You Watch It? Not unless you’re a George R.R. Martin completist, or a Syfy devotee who will gladly watch anything that’s set in outer space, regardless of the quality. Those who do stick with Nightflyers will, at the very least, be treated to above-average production value.

What Is the Scariest Ship Mishap? A robotic spider that can fire deadly laser beams—and begins to disobey commands and attack the crew. It’s as gnarly (and profoundly silly) as it sounds.

What Is the Most George R.R. Martin Thing About Nightflyers? Probably that people aboard the ship are dropping like flies, and that many of their deaths are excessively brutal (see: the laser spider).