The deep, empty expanse of space is as attractive as it is terrifying. With about one billion-trillion twinkling specks winking down at us, we can’t help but wonder if there’s something else winking back. It’s this very question that sends the reasonably dubious crew of the Nightflyer into the void circa 2093. The voyage sees neither fortune nor fortuity, though, as an invisible violent force dumps its terror unto the crew. Have they all become suddenly afflicted with exploding head syndrome, or is something uncanny afoot?
Of course, it’s the latter. Yet, something uncanny is also afoot with this show. It’s plagued with as many clichés and uncomfortable stumbles as the characters are with hallucinations. Based on a 1989 George R. R. Martin (“Game of Thrones”) novella of the same name, SyFy is apt to remind viewers just who wrote this cosmic collection of debris. Martin, to his credit, maintains a very conspicuous and comfortable distance as Executive Producer.
Among the ragtag group of maybe-scientists who tottered onto the Nightflyer for its contact-mission is Thale (Sam Strike, “Timeless”), a telepathic ex-con with a penchant for angst and brooding grimaces. It’s his ability to project images into the minds of people — which range from nudity to terror, and sometimes a robust blend of both — that sets the crew off on a hunt to seek reparation for all his wicked psychic deeds. The fact that Thale’s handler, Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol, “Boardwalk Empire”), told them on many occasions that Thale is physically unable to produce such distracting and unusually banal hallucinations matters not.
While one might like to follow along as the crew is duped into thinking the spook on the ship is all Thale’s fault, based on their nonexistent empirical evidence, you cannot. The entire ship is gray. Dark gray. Specifically, space gray. Objectively, the entire ship looks like the inside of a vacuum cleaner tube lit up with LED lights. Even if you did manage to find your way through the innumerable tunnels of gray, you wouldn’t be able to understand what the rowdy gang of space sailors was saying. It’s a crucial condition of this show that all dialogue be delivered in a flat grumble-whisper.
Say you could understand them or were handy with closed captioning — the dialogue likely won’t impress much. When Dr. Karl D’Brenin (Eoin Macken, “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter”) gets into verbal blows with Dr. Matheson, their conversation could be about anything. “How far is too far, Karl? You’re doing this for your mission,” she said. “Do I really need to remind you of the stakes? You’re just denying accountability,” Karl responded. They could be talking about a trip to a shopping mall for a refund, and you’d be none the wiser.
Under normal circumstances, the actors are — in all likelihood — not the worst. But neither the script nor the plot give them much room to prove anything different. None of the characters have motives or a hint of purpose. For a show whose opening begins with an axe-wielding whistler and a suicide by plaster saw, it’s somewhat humdrum. Not even when the space ghost hacks a spider robot, which begins lasering people in half, is there any inkling of tension. These people are a floating metal can in vast immensity of nothingness where no one can save you. Still, it all floats idly along.
“Nightflyers” owes plenty to the haunted-houses-in-space that came before it, such as “Alien” and “Event Horizon.” To be fair to “Nightflyers,” it’s aware. Much of its two-episode premiere heavily featured homages to its science-fiction grandfathers. Even its plot devices are the same, from the dead children coming back as hallucinations, to the parent who’s struggling to deal with it in any way that doesn’t involve trying to make contact with aliens. The thing is, “Nightflyers” tries to be a lot of things and in the end, it ends up being nothing.