nightflyers teaser

I did not plan to attend two panels dedicated to upcoming television shows about evil spaceships and doomed crews on the first full day of Comic-Con, but here we are. The first of them was YouTube’s Origin, which looked like a slick, schlocky and fun riff on Event Horizon and Lost. An effective B-movie. Good junk food. But the other show? The other show looks to have higher aspirations and it has become one of my most anticipated pieces of entertainment arriving in 2018.

That show is Nightflyers, Syfy’s upcoming adaptation of Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin‘s 1980 science fiction/horror novella of the same name. And while it may sound reductive to call the footage we saw “The Shining in a spaceship,” I intend that statement to read as high praise. This series looks smart, impeccably crafted, and absolutely unforgiving in its depiction of both psychological and visceral horror.

What is Nightflyers?

Set in a future where Earth is dying and humanity is starting to spread to various outer space colonies, Nightflyers follows a team of scientists and astronauts who set out to save the planet. This involves venturing further into the cosmos than any human being has been before as part of a plan to make first contact with ancient cosmic beings who may have the answer to restoring life on Earth. But the expedition goes awry. Something is wrong with the ship. People are losing their minds. People are having impossible visions. The dread and isolation of outer space (where no one can hear you scream) collides with actual supernatural forces. Creepy kids. Mechanical malfunctions. Psychopaths wielding axes. All on a spaceship so far from Earth that no one can possibly come to the rescue.

While the good ship Nightflyer is more populated than the Overlook Hotel, the new trailer that premiered during the Comic-Con panel sells a tale of isolation and madness and ordinary people driven to the edge. Ghosts and demons (both literal and figurative) come out to play. The aesthetic on display is pure hard science fiction, a world that looks more Arthur C. Clarke than George Lucas, but the tone is a cocktail of H.P. Lovecraft and Stanley Kubrick – icy, menacing, and unforgiving in its depiction of madness.

Series creator and showrunner Jeff Buhler was open about the Shining connections at the show’s Comic-Con panel, noting that the series “leans” on the greats. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien were also mentioned as key influences. But Nightflyers isn’t just a mish-mash of familiar ideas – it’s also an adaptation of a George R.R. Martin story, so you know what that means: death. Lots and lots of death.

Martin himself could not be present for the panel (although he did send a video message where he claimed to be working on the sixth A Song of Ice and Fire novel), but the cast picked up the slack. Actor Angus Sampson (who you may remember from the Insidious movies and The Knick) noted that every week of the five-month shoot in Ireland saw them saying goodbye to cast members because the body count was so high. So if you thought Game of Thrones was brutal with its constant dispatching of characters, prepare yourself. No one is safe on this show…and the clip that was screened made it clear that this applies to everyone.

A Shocking Opening Scene

In addition to the new trailer, the panel debuted the opening scene of the first episode of Nightflyers, a scene that has been the chief selling point for the series during its years of development. And while this is the opening scene, it’s shocking and extreme enough to deserve a spoiler warning. Feel free to turn back now.

The footage began with Gretchen Mol‘s Dr. Agatha Matheson, the closest thing the show’s ensemble has to a lead, floating through the Nightflyer. Artificial gravity has been disabled (the harness work here is genuinely impressive), but that doesn’t slow her down. She’s on a mission. But the ship is empty and the rooms around her have been wrecked. Bad things have happened here.

She reaches her destination, but elsewhere in the ship, gravity is turned back on. She plummets to the ground. Agatha doesn’t have time to bleed, though. She grabs a device and begins recording a desperate but sober-minded message: do not enter the Nightflyer, do not attempt a rescue, and whatever you do, do not bring the ship back to Earth.

Her message is interrupted by the arrival of xenobiologist Rowan (Sampson), who is wild-eyed and clearly unwell…and carrying an axe.

Agatha hides and waits out Rowan, who continues his hunt elsewhere. She drops her warning message into a container and prepares to launch it into space, but an axe comes flying through the wall – Rowan has found her. Cue a scuffle where Agatha fights him off using the tools at hand, stabbing him in the leg with what looks like a futuristic medical device. With her warning launched into space, Agatha picks up a circular blade from the wall of medical tools, walks to the window…and cuts her own throat, splashing her own blood everywhere.

Nightflyers begins at the ending and the rest of the show will explore how we got to this point. What drives almost everyone insane? What drives the others to suicide? Those are the big questions.

While the trailer for Nightflyers is impressive, the full clip shows off a command of tone that reminds you that Syfy doesn’t just air enjoyable junk. The network also airs Channel Zero, the best horror show on television, and this series looks like it could give it a run for its money. A lot of filmmakers and showrunners can list 2001, Alien, and The Shining as influences, but the brief glimpses we saw here suggest that Nightflyers may actually earn the comparison. The actors look to be taking the material seriously, lending potentially ludicrous scenarios genuine weight, and the massive practical sets are haunting and creepy.

With Game of Thrones, HBO realized that George R.R. Martin’s unforgiving fantasy was tailor-made for the age of Peak TV. With Nightflyers, Syfy may have discovered something similar about Martin’s science fiction.

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Nightflyers stars Eoin Macken, Sam Strike, Maya Eshet, Angus Sampson,  Jodie Turner-Smith,Gretchen Mol, David Ajala, and Brían F. O’Byrne. Here is the official synopsis:

In 2093, in hopes of making contact with a mysterious alien life at the edge of our solar system, a group of maverick scientists and a powerful telepath embark on an expedition aboard The Nightflyer. As they race towards first contact, terrifying and violent events begin to occur, causing the once tight-knit crew to mistrust each other. It’s not long before their main mission becomes survival.

Nightflyers will premiere this Fall 2018 on Syfy. It will premiere internationally on Netflix at a later date.

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