“Nightflyers” begins with a compelling sequence taken from late in its story’s action, in which Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol) is fighting for her life on a space journey gone horribly wrong. She’s fleeing an assailant who seems compelled by something unearthly, and goes on to send a warning to whomever out there is listening not to bring her ship back to Earth but to leave it where it lies, a vessel too compromised to breach our familiar atmosphere. She goes on, within the show’s first five minutes, to kill herself.
It’s a striking opening to a show that doesn’t quite earn it. “Nightflyers,” based on the pre-Westeros writing of George R. R. Martin, is a fine addition to an onscreen canon that’s already well-stuffed — that of the space horror story. But it flails when it comes to doing anything new with a metaphor that’s been worn thin, that of space travel as an escape from grief.
Both Mol’s character and Eoin Macken’s astrophysicist protagonist, we come to learn, have suffered through loss; both are using the journey towards the unknown and away from a dying 2090s earth as both a means of escape and a way to discover something potentially more fruitful. That both encounter a ship bent on destroying their wills — one that is both occupied by a dangerous psychic (Sam Strike) and imbued with a computer encoded with the worst sort of human hostility — is bitter, if easy, irony indeed.
The show follows lines of reasoning that shimmer with obviousness: Macken’s Karl D’Branin fought, hard, for the idea that his mission to space might yield first contact with intelligent life that could help earthlings, all while fleeing his life at home. (In this, he’s not dissimilar from Sean Penn’s character in this year’s Hulu series “The First” — a space adventurist fleeing trauma at home — among many other astronauts of fiction.) That he ended up having boarded a ship controlled by a computer determined to not merely thwart his mission but to evoke his worst memories is the consequence to his adventurism.
“Nightflyers” is propulsive enough, ginning up fear and terror even as it relies on hoariness. (Does David Ajala’s mysterious and reclusive corporate head onboard the ship need to be as mysterious and reclusive as he is before the point is made? Must the computer have had a big red eye just like “2001’s” iconic HAL?) But space, in its infinite capacity, can give us more. We know of Martin’s ability to not merely use genre but to bend it towards radical novelty. This series falls short of that admittedly lofty goal, which is perhaps not flaw but simple acknowledgment of most series’ limitations. (Not every new show can be “Game of Thrones.”) But the gap between potential and reality is emphasized as “Nightflyers'” characters soar between the stars and as we’re trapped in their neuroses from familiar soil.
“Nightflyers.” Syfy. Debuts Sun., Dec. 2. 10 episodes (five screened for review.)
Cast: David Ajala, Maya Eshet, Eoin Macken, Gretchen Mol, Brían F. O’Byrne, Angus Sampson, Sam Strike, Jodie Turner-Smith.
Executive Producers: George R. R. Martin, Jeff Buhler, Brian Nelson, Mike Cahill, Andrew McCarthy, Gene Klein, David Bartis, Doug Liman, Alison Rosenzweig, Michael Gaeta, Lloyd Ivan Miller, Alice P. Neuhauser.