“Nightflyers” lacks George R.R. Martin’s special touch

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“A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE”, a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, is big in every way. The story unfolds across multiple fictional continents in five books; they come to around 4,000 pages in total. More than 80m copies have been sold. “Game of Thrones”, HBO’s adaptation of the series, attracted record viewership for the network and earned 47 Emmy Awards, more than any other scripted primetime show. Lev Grossman, an author and critic, attributed the story’s success to Mr Martin’s willingness to defy the conventions of genre. “[Mr Martin] dared to do things with fantasy that nobody else did. He broke rules,” he said. “It was the fantasy readers needed and had been waiting for.” It ignored the classic narrative of good-versus-evil in favour of gritty realism. Magic was less important than the political scheming and violence between warring human factions. 

The series was not the author’s first experiment with genre, form and style. In 1980 Mr Martin penned a 23,000-word story to try and prove that horror and science fiction could be successfully combined. In 1978 a critic had declared that the irrationality and fear key to horror was fundamentally incompatible with the rationality and logic required by sci-fi. Mr Martin’s novella, “Nightflyers”, took the trope of the haunted house and sent it into space. His tale follows a group of scientists, on a mission to make contact with a mysterious alien fleet, who find themselves under attack from their own spaceship. It is a satisfyingly tense and claustrophobic story (even if “Alien”, Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial thriller, had proved the same point the year before).

Perhaps hoping to emulate the success of both “Alien” and “Game of Thrones”, “Nightflyers” has been adapted for television by SyFy, an American channel. The production has some nice touches: the sets are realised with exquisite detail, and the special effects are realistic rather than distracting. The fact that the crew is seeking alien contact because humans have irreversibly damaged Earth feels prescient given current concerns about climate change. The actors’ performances, generally, are good. Sam Strike (“Eastenders”) and Angus Sampson (“Fargo”) are particularly strong, playing an emotionally volatile psychic and a sardonic xenobiologist, respectively. 

On the whole, however, “Nightflyers” disappoints. This is mostly due to the problems of converting a slim story into a much longer series. The first season runs to nearly ten hours, and subsequent seasons have been hinted at; even when incorporating details from a disastrous film version in 1987, which the show has done, there is a lot of extra space to fill. Jeff Buhler, the series showrunner, promised to “keep the bones of the novella intact” and he does, but the writers fail to add supporting muscles or sinews. Details are longer and more convoluted, without making them richer or deeper. 

The result is a show that is heavy on gore and jump scares, but far too light on context and character development. Particularly frustrating is the use of flashbacks. It is revealed early on that the mission’s ratcheting body count is the work of an onboard artificial intelligence (displayed, boringly, as a HAL-style red light that glows ominously whenever anything horrible happens). In a departure from the original text, much of the torture the ship inflicts on its passengers involves hallucinations based on their worst fears. Shown as flashes of backstory, these could easily be utilised to provide context for the scientists’ competing motivations but they are not, leading to a collection of jumbled scenes and characters that remain resolutely two-dimensional. Such surface storytelling would be understandable in a novella but it is inexcusable over several episodes.

In this, “Nightflyers” is in stark contrast to “Game of Thrones”, where the backstories of each character are endlessly unpicked to give them complicated behaviours and desires. For some seasons, writers have been assigned to a particular figure to oversee their story arc and ensure consistency. Mr Martin worked closely with the makers of “Game of Thrones” meaning that, even when the television series began to overtake the books, it remained rich and congruous. Despite SyFy happily plastering Mr Martin’s name on their promotional material, “Nightflyers” is not his show: he was prohibited from creative involvement due to his contract with HBO. The one area in which he did wield influence—insisting that Melantha, a genetically engineered superwoman, be black, as she was originally written (the character was whitewashed in the film version)—is one of the show’s high points, leading as it did to the casting of Jodie Turner-Smith, who shines. 

Perhaps some of these narrative flaws will be addressed as the series progresses. Until then, though, it is a cautionary tale of revisiting a creator’s early work on the basis of their current success.

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