As the name of this review suggests, I did not finish watching the first season of Nightflyers. Despite the fact that I spend approximately 250 minutes each week engaged in cardiovascular exercise, which affords me a considerable amount of time to watch prestige television, I can’t bring myself to struggle across this particular finish line.
I was, however, content to give Nightflyers the benefit of the doubt on first principles. It’s a story set aboard a spooky, spikey-bit festooned interplanetary craft. The series’ log line is that the ‘Flyer is on a mission to rendezvous with some enigmatic aliens with the power to save a dying Earth. All of the above check enough of my Event Horizon boxes to buy the show some leeway.
Beyond the obvious comparison to Event Horizon, the series’ writing also seemed to be borrowing from other things that I love. From the outset, it was clear the ship had some sort of demon or rogue AI that was causing a series of “accidents” that were subsequently blamed on the ship’s resident telepath. You know who else persecuted telepaths? Babylon 5. Space demons sounds a lot like Doom, and I love me some Doom. And if we’re going to talk about rampant AIs, then let me give you a list of reasons why I would gladly offer up my defective meat body to System Shock’s SHODAN.
The problem with the series is that science fiction is supposed to be a genre about ideas. While Nightflyers is great at mobilizing the motifs of other stories, I don’t see a lot of actual ideas in play. Don’t misunderstand me, this is not a critique of Nightflyers standing on the shoulders of giants – that in and of itself is not a deal breaker. The problem here is that Nightflyers reduces its conflicts to so much dull tech support.
It sounds great when the writing introduces a preserved consciousness running rampant inside the ship. However, the solution to this problem is *checks notes* erect a firewall, which is then regularly patched by the ship’s computer technician. Oh. I see.
There’s no reflection. There’s no allegory. There’s no lesson on what we might or might not become. We are denied even the most fundamental ethical hand wringing about a rich person using their fortune to buy immortality. It takes a special kind of non-effort to get outfoxed on subtext by Altered Carbon, yet here we are. Everything, even contact with an enigmatic alien, is parsed through a lens of abject banality for the characters, and the result is a story that comes off as entirely predictable.
Then there are the horror elements. I see horror as another genre of ideas and morality. Nightflyers seems to think that horror begins and ends with guts, gore, freaky children, and the terrors of South Park’s Eric Cartman. The latter was the final insult for me.
In episode six, the Nightflyer comes into contact with a ship thought to be lost to time. Despite the first three episodes having more guns than a Paul Verhoeven movie, the ‘Flyer’s boarding party breaches the lost ship armed with *checks notes* flashlights. I think this was the first time a lack of a Chekhov’s gun heralded an entirely predictable bit of cannibalistic body horror and forced breeding. For real. I watched five minutes of episode six, and I accurately predicted that bit of writing on the wall – though there was some literal writing on the walls that helped as well. Also, yes, I did say forced breeding.
It turns out the ghost ship is run by a bunch of women who follow a science cult that dictates they should eat their men, but keep one or two around to have their bollocks drained for sperm by an oversized needle-suction device. Said sperm is then used to grow new men, who are subsequently eaten. And that’s literally when a show “based on a novella by George R. R. Martin” realized Eric Cartman’s fear of feminism. This is to say a world where men are kept and bred in underground caves on Mars, and their only purpose is to produce sperm and jokes. It is the body horror of a teenage boy, a sad, angry little boy who lives in fear of girls laughing at him.
I don’t know if an old woman sticking a needle in a guy’s dick and/or balls to pump sperm out of him – which makes no goddamn sense at all if you know anything about how sperm works or have even a passing knowledge of how cloning works – is in George Martin’s original novella, or if this is the product of the writer’s room needing to stretch things out while trying to find the bleeding edge. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s one thing to be mediocre, but it’s another thing to go full Cartman absent any sort of reflection or ideation beyond, “Hurr durr, Imma kill this woman who has been pumping my nuts. I’m edgy.”
Peace out, Nightflyers. You were everything I expected, and less.