First look Netflix UK TV review: Nightflyers
Ivan Radford | On 31, Jan 2019Reading time: 3 mins
The year is 2093. The Earth has fallen to disease. Humanity is at its last resort. And it’s been 74 years since the end of Game of Thrones. One of those sentences doesn’t really belong in this review – not that it’s stopped SyFy from highlighting George R.R. Martin’s connection to Nightflyers, a new series based on his 1980 novella. But this sci-fi thriller is no Game of Thrones, judging by its opening episodes, which, unlike the above sentence, carry no real surprises; everything here, George R.R. Martin’s name in the marketing aside, falls a little too predictably into place.
Nightflyers takes its name from The Nightflyer, a ship that’s ferrying a cargo of humans away from home in the hope of finding first contact with an advanced group of extra-terrestrials. They’re led by Karl (Eoin Macken), who firmly believes that if they can get through The Void, they’ll find something, but the question of whether anyone else shares his faith soon becomes irrelevant, as the ship begins to malfunction before they can even get to their goal.
That may or may not be because of the presence of an L1 on board. Called Thale (Sam Strike), he’s a telepath who comes with a warning that needs no psychic transmission; he’s locked up and only handled by Agatha (Gretchen Mol), the ship’s psychiatrist, who hopes that she can keep him on everyone’s good side. Strike plays Thale with an enjoyably intimidating edge, and wastes no time in using his powers to take down members of the crew. But it soon becomes apparent that he’s not the real threat, and the moment that happens, Nightflyers loses its tangible sense of danger and struggles to find a replacement villain to sit on the show’s naughty step.
It doesn’t help that our heroes are a little too rote to give us something to root for: there’s Mol’s smart and sympathetic Agatha, who just happens to have a history with Karl; he, meanwhile, is carrying around a token slab of grief; there’s Captain Roy (David Ajala), who only appears on set as a hologram for no real reason; and there’s Melanthia Jhirl (Jodie Turner-Smith), who is shrewdly aware that Roy’s watching them all closely. The only one with any real intrigue is Thale, and the show seems to realise it, using his abilities to fuel a string of hallucinated memories that tease back-stories and secrets for each of his fellow travellers. But then the show appears to forget that and moves down another path instead, one that involves machines, lasers and death. It’s a lurch away from a tense group dynamic into something disappointingly routine, as we watch Strike’s figure move from bad-but-fun to bad-but-not-really-that-bad-after-all.
The sequences are shot slickly, with impressive effects, even with the production’s fairly limited set (if you like playing Sinister Spaceship Corridor Bingo, this show’s a real winner). But as it ticks boxes of genre favourites, without doing anything new, it’s hard not to compare Nightflyers to other things that have done this before and better. It’s not as tense as Alien, not as unique as Cube, not as scary as Event Horizon and, perhaps most importantly, not as knowingly bonkers as Lifeforce. It doesn’t help that the series arrives hot on the asteroid belt of YouTube original series Origin, which crafted a more memorable ensemble and delved into each character’s past with more emotion and stronger scientific concepts. There’s potential for the show to pull something out of the space bag, but with even a daft, spider-related twist taken far too seriously, the odds of meaningful contact aren’t looking great. Best watched on autopilot.
Nightflyers is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.