Based on George R. R. Martin’s novella, “Nightflyers,” the new SyFy Channel adaptation of the text opens with a strong first episode that reveals a great deal of information about the world we are getting to know without overwhelming the viewer.
The episode opens with rubble like trees and other material floating around outside of a large space ship. A woman floating in zero gravity – Dr. Agatha Matheson – works desperately to reach some kind of recorder as gravity kicks back on, activated by a bloody hand whose owner is not revealed. The doctor identifies herself in the recording, saying that the “Nightflyer has sustained fatalities and structural damage” as we hear creepy murder-whistling and see a man – Rowan – come meandering around a corner with blood on his shirt and an axe in his hand. Since he is whistling and bloody we know he is trouble for sure.
Agatha completes her recording, warning future listeners NOT TO BOARD the Nightflyer and not to bring the ship back to Earth under any circumstances. She then hides the recorder in a bio-waste pod and launches it into space just before Rowan finds her again. In a very not-what-I-expected moment Agatha then grabs a medical saw from nearby and uses it to slash her own throat. With that, the camera pans back and away from the ship and the story begins in earnest.
Retreating into the past by six months, we meet Dr. Karl D’Branin as he is scanned at a roadblock for some kind of virus. He is cleared to pass and returns home to his wife, Joy, who tells him the news reports that quarantine zones are back in effect because of further outbreaks. Captain Roy Eris has called to offer to support the young doctor’s scientific pursuits and asks that he bring a research team to his ship – The Nighflyer – a colony ship, to make contact with an alien “volcryn” ship that Karl has discovered in space. He promises his wife, Joy, that he will be gone for two years but that he will be return. Joy seems smart so she knows that when a man in a sci-fi shows says that, he’s DOOMED.
After a short memory sequence of Karl and his daughter, we are told that the year is 2093 and it has been six months since the day Karl told Joy he was leaving. Karl’s team begins to assemble on the Nightflyer, including Melantha Jhirl, mission specialist and Lommie Thorne, who talks to the ship and has had a neural port inserted into her body. Karl seems to know Dr. Agatha Matheson, the psychiatrist, from a past relationship. This is confirmed later when Joy gives major attitude at the mention of the doc’s name.
Dr. Agatha Matheson is included in the mission to conduct a powerful psychic, Thale, considered an L-1 or generally dangerous psychic dude, to the planned rendezvous with the volcryn who he may be able to communicate with despite no response from the aliens after multiple attempts at contact. Thale is kept awake but “suppressed” and in a secure bin where he can only affect those around him through unintentional psychic feedback.
After Thale is moved safely to the ship, Karl and Agatha catch up while observing the ship’s greenhouse (that contains the trees we saw bouncing around in space around the rubble of the Nightflyer at the beginning of the episode). Karl says he intends to keep his promise to look after Thale and that Captain Eris will allow Kale two hours per week to enjoy the greenhouse. Agatha reveals that Thale has been a captive his whole life since being taken from his family and has never experienced anything like the outdoors. THe conversation reveals that Thale was brought on the mission because the volcryn have technology Earth can’t possibly imagine and Karl hopes to make contact in order to secure aid that will help save planet Earth.
Next we meet Rowan, a xenobiologist, who is not carrying an axe yet but is skeptical of making contact with alien life. Gossip in the mess hall reveals that families from a place called Luna 71 were killed by another L-1, making the crew very nervous and hostile towards he and the team.
When the launch is initiated, a series of malfunction nearly cause a catastrophic accident. Shortly after we get our first glimpse of Thale, who is filled with understandable attitude and a readiness to spar with anyone who will speak to him. Karl encourages Agatha to question Thale even though she doesn’t think he could have caused the launch issues, quoting what seems to be established boundaries to psychic powers for someone of his class. While this conversation occurs, Karl thinks he hears his daughter’s voice echoing in the hall of the ship. This occurs multiple times throughout the episode and is shortly accompanied by visual “hallucinations” (?).
Lommie, plugged into the ship, searches for the cause of the launch issue, but can’t find anything specific to incriminate or clear Thale. It’s then that she discovers that the volcryn ship has shifted course, heading far deeper into the Void than the Nightflyer means to go. The adjustment to their course will add five more months to their mission. When Karl discovers this he asks Lommie to hide all evidence of the fact.
A short time later Karl speaks to his wife via comm link. The conversation confirms that Joy knows there was a relationship between he and Agatha, and also that their daughter died during the six months before Karl boarded the Nightflyer. Later, an interaction between Mel and Captain Eris’s hologram reveals that he watches the crew from a series of cameras and is never seen in person. He calls Mel fascinating, and a “cadet from genetic program,” which we learn means that she has been genetically designed for space travel from birth. Eris admits that he has never been on Earth and is gone before she realizes the conversation is over.
We then shift to Thale in the greenhouse with Dr. Matheson, feeling the cool ground on his feet and engaging with the smells and voices of the place. He tells Agatha that trees, plants, bees have voices. (This makes the trees floating through space at the beginning of the episode pretty sad, but we keep moving forward.) Thale talks about how everyone thinks he is unstable but assures the doctor that he didn’t put thoughts in Karl’s head or affect the launch. Karl then comes for Thale to meet with Captain Eris. When Thale tries to defend himself against the guards, he is tranquilized and wakes up in his bin with Matheson and Captain Eris. Thale can tell he’s a hologram because he can’t hear his thoughts.
At the end of the episode, Thale calls out that Karl has been lying about their mission, including to the captain, revealing the course shift of the alien ship they want to try to rendezvous with. With that, the first episode ends and I am left thoroughly glad that most of the episodes of this show are already released and ready to be binged.
While I have not read the novella that inspired this new show, I am so down. Having only just met our characters I find them compelling and mysterious and can’t wait to solve the mystery of the Nightflyer and its evasive captain. Initial perceptions of the show include joy that two of the main characters are LGBTQ and physically or genetically modified, adding rich layers of diversity in the one place where diversity has always been welcome – space. Sexuality is already being treated as fluid, and the Event Horizon feel that emanates from the first episode has got me hooked.
Here are a few of my predictions (again, I have not read the novella):
- Karl’s wife Joy is doomed. Daughter – dead. Husband – fled to space with his ex. Creepy foreshadowing on the comm link. Suicide?
- I don’t think Thale is causing the trouble. He draws and projects what he sees. Or, he is much stronger than he has been letting on.
- Captain Eris is also a genetically enhanced human. His interest in Mel combined with his mysterious projection-only policy suggest to me that he and the ship are connected.
- The volcryn are trying to stay the hell away from humans