‘Nightflyers’ turns George R.R. Martin novella into Syfy pretender
Having created the blockbuster “Game of Thrones,” George R.R. Martin’s works are suddenly in high demand. But “Nightflyers” — a series based on a 1980s Martin novella — proves a tediously generic haunted-house-in-space odyssey, one that Syfy is either (charitably) experimenting with or (more likely) rapidly exhausting by making all 10 episodes available simultaneously with its linear-TV debut.
Set in 2093, there’s a timely element to the underlying premise of escaping a polluted Earth described as a “dying planet,” as a small international crew engages in an expedition to encounter alien life at the solar system’s edge aboard a ship known as Nightflyer. Space really is the final frontier.
In addition, the scientists/explorers are accompanied by a telepath, whose services they’ll need to make contact but who, given the dangers associated with those abilities, they don’t trust. The high stakes are all set up by an opening sequence that hints of the mayhem to come, with the mission psychiatrist (Gretchen Mol) warning, “Do not bring the Nightflyer back to Earth!”
What follows, however, is alternately chaotic and generic — down to the general look of their spacefaring environs — featuring an assortment of wholly nondescript characters, largely squandering the cast.
While the murky nature of everyone’s motivations should provide an element of suspense, because there’s so little investment in the personalities at risk — which include a mysterious captain (David Ajala), the chief engineer (Bryan F. O’Byrne) and an astro-physicist (Eoin Macken) nursing personal wounds — it’s hard to care who will survive the journey.
Adapted into a long-forgotten movie 30 years ago, “Nightflyers'” shortcomings largely mirror those of “Origin,” a strikingly similar sci-fi premise that recently premiered on YouTube. Because the Syfy show essentially joins the story in the middle, there’s a similar sense of playing catch-up throughout, starting with sorting out what an “L-1” level empath can do, and exactly why the crew members are so nervous about having one among them.
Syfy nevertheless seems determined to make “Nightflyers” feel like an event — billing it as such, leveraging Martin’s name to the hilt, and airing the episodes over consecutive nights Sunday through Thursday over two weeks, coupled with the option to binge them online.
The desire to catch lightning in a bottle in the way that “Thrones” did is certainly understandable — one half expects to see “George R.R. Martin’s High School Yearbook” — but “Nightflyers” merely reinforces that such alchemy is exceedingly rare. And while the two might share literary lineage, the new series is at best a pallid pretender.
“Nightflyers” premieres Dec. 2 at 10 p.m. on Syfy. All 10 episodes will be available at Syfy.com.