Spoilers for the general plot of Nightflyers ahead.
In the first episode of Syfy’s new series Nightflyers, Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken), head of a scientific expedition meant to intercept an alien spaceship and establish first contact, talks with xenobiologist Rowan (Angus Sampson) about the mission. Karl views the incredible energy given off by the ship as mankind’s salvation, but Rowan expects the aliens haven’t responded to repeated messages from Earth because they don’t want to talk.
“Any beings that intelligent would see the human race for what we are,” he says. “We’re a virus that has killed its host and is looking for a new host to infect… They’re probably going to exterminate us.”
Science fiction typically portrays aliens either as evil forces looking to conquer Earth or as benevolent beings helping humans along the path to enlightenment. Nightflyers stands apart because it asks which form of extraterrestrial contact humanity deserves. Loosely based on George R.R. Martin’s 40-year-old novella of the same name, Nightflyers is set in 2093, as humanity looks to colonize the stars to escape their plague-ravaged home. D’Branin has persuaded the mysterious Captain Roy Eris (David Ajala) to take a handpicked crew of scientists and specialists on board the Nightflyer to ask the aliens — known as the volcryn — for help.
Things immediately start going wrong when the Nightflyer experiences a series of mysterious mechanical problems that Eris cryptically promises to get under control. Making matters worse is the presence of the powerful psychic Thale (Sam Strike), whom Karl believes is key to communicating with the volcryn. Wonderfully played as an abrasive Cockney teen testing the limits of everyone around him, Thale is both a gadfly and a scapegoat for the ship, and he makes characters and viewers alike question whether what they’re seeing is real or just his mind games. Some vaguely referenced incident has led all psychics to be taken from their parents and imprisoned as soon as their powers manifest, and the crew’s treatment of Thale threatens their ability to make contact, but it also provides further fodder for Rowan’s pessimistic expectations.
Showrunner Jeff Buhler has built a fascinating world around Martin’s story seeds, starting by setting the action within the foreseeable future, rather than in an incomprehensibly distant one. The invented technologies here are particularly intriguing, like the genetic modifications first officer Melantha Jhirl (Jodie Turner-Smith) has to make her better suited for space travel, or the cybernetics technician Lommie (Maya Eshet) uses to interface with machinery. Given the state of real-world technological developments in genetic engineering and research into brain-machine interfaces, the series feels plausible and grounded, even though it’s set in a spacefaring future.
While most of the show’s action takes place on board the Nightflyer, extra exposition occasionally comes through flashbacks, which are enabled by a sphere that feels like a fusion of Star Trek’s holodeck and the memory-playback technology used in the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You.” It’s a novel idea, though it becomes questionable how many times crewmembers choose to play back terrible memories, particularly once the sadistic intelligence in control of the ship starts using their data against them. Memory is a major theme in Nightflyers, with Karl agonizing about his wife’s decision to undergo a therapy straight out of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to help her move past their daughter’s death, while Roy is haunted by thoughts about his brilliant mother who designed the Nightflyer.
Nightflyers breaks up the space-horror tension with good old-fashioned soap opera fare. Stressed, far from home, and presented with limited romantic options, the crew members quickly form a tangled web of relationships. Lommie hooks up with Melantha, who wants to keep it casual because she’s also got a thing for the captain, who creepily watches her through the ship’s cameras. Thale is infatuated with his psychologist, Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol) whose romantic past with Karl soured due to her work with psychics. Rowan flirts with the ship’s biologist while they analyze blood samples. It’s all pretty silly and hard to take seriously, but it helps build investment in the characters, to keep audiences interested in the outcome of the crisis du jour.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Nightflyers and YouTube Premium’s recently debuted Origin since both are about the crews of troubled spaceships. Nightflyers is the better model, relying less on gore and jump-scares, and instead producing slow-burning psychological suspense. But it’s far from perfect, and the novelty of its premise and world is weighed down by an over-reliance on familiar tropes like killer robots, malevolent AI, and haunted houses.
The show’s biggest weakness might be its refusal to end plots, a common trap for mystery-driven genre shows. Nightflyers’ opening scene lets viewers know that the story won’t end well for at least some of the crew members, and the show is built around exploring how they get to that point. Even in the first five episodes provided for review, some of that material feels like filler. It’s understandable that the writers don’t want to deliver answers, which are so often less satisfying than questions. Roy immediately becomes a much less sympathetic character as soon as he lets the crew in on his big secret. The scenes they spend trying to deal with that information are some of the show’s worst, and just when it looks like they might be able to move on, Buhler uses yet another tired horror trope to make it clear that nothing is really resolved.
Plenty of other little mysteries are introduced and left hanging, not the least of which is why the aliens are referred to as volcryn. In Martin’s novella, the word comes from a myth humans learn from other aliens, but there’s no explanation for it here. That’s especially irritating since the wide variety of accents among the actors makes it hard to tell what the name actually is.
Like humanity, Nightflyers is grappling with some serious problems. But both also have the potential to learn from their mistakes and do something extraordinary. The crew of the Nightflyer needs to make their case for survival to a powerful alien race. Nightflyers is facing a similar existential crisis. To survive, it has to earn the attention and love of streaming viewers in a crowded science fiction field, and they may be even more difficult to comprehend.
All 10 episodes of Nightflyers will air on Syfy on Dec. 2nd through 13th at 10PM ET.