As we are at the cusp of the season finale for Game of Thrones, arguably the most popular fantasy series in history, George R. R. Martin, the celebrated writer of A Song of Ice and Fire, has just introduced us to his new work through Netflix’s sci-fi series Nightflyers which is based on his 1981 novella of the same name. Unlike the period-fantasy world of Westeros that we know him for, Nightflyers is based on a future when mankind has developed means to pursue potentially advanced extraterrestrial life-forms who may help them find a way to save their planet from extinction. Karl D’Branin and his team have been invited aboard the space-ship ‘The Nightflyer’ captained by the legendary Roy Eris who shares D’Branin’s passion towards finding alien life-forms. D’Branin also requests to bring along a psychiatrist named Agatha Matheson who specializes in working with telepaths. Although telepaths are considered volatile and dangerous, D’Branin feels that having a telepath with them may help them establish contact with the Volcryn, the alien life-form they are pursuing. Agatha brings along an L1 (Level 1 ?) telepath named Thale who is powerful enough to project thoughts into his victims and make them do things against their volition. Understandably, this creates a complicated situation between D’Branin’s team and the crew of the Nightflyer who had not been intimated earlier about an L1 being their co-passenger. Thale’s mischievous antics do not help their situation either as some of the crew-members feel as if their memories had been invaded. But for Agatha’s calming explanations, they would turn on him any minute.
The Nightflyer is not without its own secrets as well. Systems keep malfunctioning or sometimes even acting on their own. The projection systems throughout the ship manifest holographic imagery of the deep, dark memories of some of the passengers. D’Branin keeps seeing his daughter who had passed away a few years back, and he has not quite grown out of the guilt that he hadn’t been able to save her. On the outset, he thinks that these visions are of Thale’s doing but even after they put him into a deep, drug-induced sleep with his mind incapacitated, the visions do not go away. Lommie, the network expert on D’Branin’s team, has the ability to neurally connect to the Nightflyer’s system. She identifies the source as somewhere inside Roy Eris’s quarters. Things take a darker turn as Eris reveals that his mother Cynthia, who had died long ago, had tied her consciousness to the ship.
The premise of the series is established by giving the story a purpose – a ship that is chasing the Volcryn who may or may not be their salvation. After that prelude, the story dives into the characters and their individual backgrounds, their motivations and their insecurities. The presence of a telepath who has access to everyone of their memories and sensations makes it an intriguing melting pot of drama and science-fiction. The pilot starts like your run-of-the-mill space thriller but soon takes on a more menacing character as layers upon layers are revealed, unveiling new sub-plots. Unlike GRRM’s intricate world-building with a multitude of character-arcs, Nightflyers runs a tight ship with its storyline and character graphs.
The production is pretty well done with an ominous quality to the ship and is reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, not in cinematography but in its personality. There are some interesting ideas that have been executed well. For instance, there’s a memory dome where the crew can go to relive their memories inside their heads. Also, Lommie’s way of interfacing with the network by directly plugging it into her arm and then controlling it by gesturing with her hands as if she were playing the lyre was interesting to watch. These devices have been used extensively throughout the episodes where they turn on the characters. Lommie gets trapped inside the network while she tries to find Cynthia Eris and stop her from gaining control over the ship. D’Branin almost loses his mind as he starts seeing memories of things that had never happened.
The plotline does have its flaws. It meanders a bit with some events that don’t really have much of a bearing on the story and feel more like distractions. There is an episode where the Nightflyers find another abandoned ship which was inhabited solely by women. This episode felt like an afterthought that was not needed in the grander scheme of things. The temporary mania of Rowan, the biologist on D’Branin’s team, also felt rather strange, especially after he gains his sanity back so easily. The all-controlling Cynthia was an interesting plot-device but she doesn’t get enough time for us to invest in her motives. Having said that, Nightflyers has some worthy performances and a decent execution of what feels like a compelling idea. What I found the most interesting is that, while mankind aspires to communicate with advanced beings, they are still so wrangled in their own problems that they would rather kill off each other than have the presence of mind to focus on the preservation of the planet as their ultimate goal. It would be interesting to see what Season 2 brings us as Karl D’Branin is about to confront the Volcryn themselves. If you’ve been looking for a gripping sci-fi binge-watch, this is a good one to get into.