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NIGHTFLYERS, Though Promising, Is Adrift in Space

This review of the first five episodes (of ten) for Nightflyers is spoiler-free.

Nightflyers begins with a perfect opening scene. It’s a tense, terrifying flash forward of the nightmare to come. It’s so good the network released it early in its entirety (you can watch it below). But with it comes the burden of expectations, both for where the show is going and how it will get there. There is also the burden that Syfy‘s new science-fiction horror series is adapted from a George R.R. Martin novella about a haunted spaceship. Combined, these two things are a promise to viewers the series will live up to this moment. Whether or not the show will fulfill that promise remains to be seen, but if it does, Nightflyers will have taken a long time to get there.

The series starts with Gretchen Mol’s Dr. Agatha Matheson flying through the gravity-free Nightflyer, a massive ship clearly in chaos. She keeps looking back to see if she’s being followed, and we find out why when a big, bearded, axe-wielding man (Angus Sampson) comes looking for her. He looks like he walked out of The Amityville Horror house, which turns out to be a fitting parallel when we go back to the start of the story and learn he’s actually a very likeable scientists named Rowan. Something awful about this heinous ship has changed him into a murderous psychopath. But the real surprise comes at the end of the scene, when Dr. Matheson takes a saw blade to her own neck. Things have turned so badly on the Nightflyer that death is preferable than even trying to escape. That is if escape is possible at all. It’s a fantastic moment of terror that lets the audience know anything can and will happen.

This opening captures the show at its strongest and most captivating. It creates claustrophobic uneasiness in which you are always being watched and no one feels safe. It’s not clear who–or what–anyone can trust, with each character carrying their own secrets and unknown motivations. Terrible, often deadly things keep happening on the Nightflyer, right from the start, and no one is sure why. The chief suspect is the complex and intriguing Thale (played by Sam Strike), a dangerous telepath with unimaginable telekinetic powers. He was brought along to communicate with an alien ship the Nightflyer is trying to reach, but not everyone thinks his presence is worth the risk, and with good reason that is made clear immediately.

At times Nightflyers feels like a perfect amalgam of other classic horror movies. In addition to The Amityville Horror, there are elements of Alien and The Thing. And thanks in part to the clever inclusion of a natural, wooded area on the ship, there are touches from slasher films like Friday the 13th and Halloween. Stephen King’s Room 1408 also lurks in the show’s undercurrents.

However, the show feels slow and more like work when it plays out like a collection of trite horror tropes. Since the source material is a novella that would probably be best suited to a five or six episode mini-series at most, the amount of people on the ship has been greatly expanded. When terrible things happen to those minor, secondary characters, it doesn’t have much oomph. Has anyone ever cared about the death of a red shirt? Here, those fatalities feel like filler designed to pad out ten episodes: these are the overly gruesome, overtly funny deaths you see in horror movie franchises that have run out of ideas.

It’s especially frustrating because the main cast is genuinely interesting. The show is better when it spends time with them–Lommie, Thale, Rowan, the mission’s director Karl D’Branin, and Brían F. O’Byrne’s Auggie, a longtime crew member. The main characters have stories worth caring about; the minor characters have deaths that don’t matter.

The show also gives up some of its biggest secrets too early. The main mystery that drives the tension of the first few episodes doesn’t remain a mystery for long, nor do many of the characters’ own personal demons. That might have been a consequence of expanding the source material into a much bigger story, but it does undercut what the show does best.

It’s not clear through the show’s halfway point if the series will deliver on the promise it made with its opening scene. Sometimes it seems like it will, but as the Nightflyer hurtles deeper into space, the further away the show gets from its compelling introduction. Still, there’s ample time to reach that terrifying promise land, and we’re just invested enough to stay onboard.

Nightflyers debuts on all Syfy platforms on December 2nd.

Images: Syfy

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