In the post-Game of Thrones television landscape, anything with the name George R.R. Martin attached comes with certain level of expectation and anticipation. High expectations, then, mostly tied directly to the massive success the author of the source material has had with an entirely different project, may prove the biggest hurdle Nightflyers faces as it commences with its premiere and, as is increasingly common for the genre cable network, its subsequent binge-watch.
The limited series event is a far cry from the political intrigue, rampant death, dragons, and Jon Snows of Westeros. For starters, though it still goes deep into its respective genre trappings, Nightflyers is an entirely different animal, one that leans more into horror and, to be more specific, slasher movies, than it does hard sci-fi. That’s not to say the series, from creator Jeff Buhler (writer of the upcoming Pet Sematary and Grudge remakes) doesn’t take its place in the world of science fiction seriously, rather it is to say that Nightflyers, for all its narrative emphasis on humankind’s attempt at making first contact with alien lifeforms and the questions such an event raises, is really only interested in raising a body count aboard the massive ship on which the series is set.
But being a horror story set in space presents Nightflyers a challenge met unsuccessfully by many TV shows nowadays: there’s not enough story here to necessitate a 10-episode series. As a result, what might have been a taut, gory, scare-fest along the lines of Paul W.S. Anderson’s equally unnerving mid-‘90s horror film, Event Horizon, becomes a disorganized event that stretches too little material too far.
Though it sags in the middle and gets somewhat lost in its journey to… somewhere, the series at least announces itself with a provocative opening sequence that takes place — presumably — near the end of the story. Buhler’s approach starts things off with Gretchen Mol’s Dr. Agatha Matheson on the run from Angus Sampson’s Rowan, the ship’s resident xenobiologist and seemingly cuddly, cardigan-wearing member of the crew. For reasons that easily come to mind for those who’ve seen The Shining, Rowan is stalking Agatha through the ship with ax, as she attempts to send a warning to others not to approach or mess with the ship. Basically, then, Nightflyers is what would happen if the Overlook Hotel were a massive spacecraft. But the cold open ends with Agatha taking a bone saw to her own jugular, spelling out just how bad things have gotten on board the ship and ostensibly creating in the audience an extreme need to know, with regard to the events that led up to her fatal decision.
It’s an effective way to kick the series off, hooking the viewer by first giving them a glimpse of what appears to be the narrative’s climax. Unfortunately, most of that intrigue is squandered as the series struggles to live up to both the sight of Agatha’s suicide and the questions of what brought her to such a place. What viewers get instead is a plodding space mystery that bides its time by turning the mostly faceless, one-dimensional members of the Nightflyer crew into hapless victims whose deaths are, sadly, the only interesting things about them.
Though it’s not exactly a haunted house story, the series more or less plays by the rules of that particular subgenre. The closer they get to their intended destination, the more a sinister force manipulates the minds of the crew onboard the ship and — because it’s playing by haunted house rules — the ship itself. Like The Shining, the story throws a wildcard in from the beginning, this time in the form of Thale (Sam Strike) a psychic known in the parlance of the Nightflyers universe as an “L1.” But whereas Danny Torrance mostly tried to keep his abilities a secret, Thale is known to and feared by all for his extra-sensory perception, making him persona non grata among the crew and the primary suspect when things start to go wrong.
The idea of psychics and telepaths being a known quantity in the world of Nightflyers is an intriguing concept. Unfortunately, it’s one that carries more intrigue than most of the story itself. Nightflyers’ biggest drawback is that it is perpetually building toward some big reveal, some hidden horror or malevolent force in the depths of space that is meant to give the story payoff and significance. But the closer the Nightflyer and its ill-fated crew get to that source, the less any of it seems to carry any meaning beyond one character or another meeting his or her end in horrible fashion. There’s an audience for that and it’s one Nightflyers is courting heavily by the series' mid-point. Its slasher-film sensibilities do make for some imaginative, gore-strewn sequences — an encounter with a laser-toting robot in the second episode is a memorable example of this — but these individual parts rarely add up to a truly compelling whole.
In the end, Nightflyers’ best friend is whoever at SYFY made the decision to turn the series into a marathon/binge-watch. Given the series’ plodding nature, the first five hours are made more consumable in rapid succession. It’s a smart move, one that both burns the episodes off quickly, but also seemingly incentivizes those who’ve tuned in early to keep watching through to the end. Whether most viewers will want to stick with the series once they've started remains to be seen, but at least SYFY’s making that decision as easy as possible.
Nightflyers episodes 1-5 air across all formats Sunday-Thursday, Dec. 2-6 @10pm, while episodes 6-10 premiere Sunday-Thursday, Dec. 9-13 @10pm.