Even in the middle of its massive two-year gap between seasons, HBO’s Game of Thrones is still one of the most talked-about TV shows out there. Perhaps hoping in part to capitalize on the author’s fame, Syfy adapted Martin’s sci-fi horror novella Nightflyers into a TV show that will air its ten episodes in doubled-up chunks across a five-day span. The programming move may have some thinking Nightflyers isn’t worth viewers’ binge-ready troubles, and most critics seem to support that.
Nightflyers is Syfy’s latest space-faring series, coming after vocally opposed cancellations for The Expanse and Dark Matter. The story involves a scientist team’s attempt to contact alien beings interrupted by a violent incident that dissolves everyone’s trust and sanity. Critics haven’t been very kind, either, with Nightflyers hitting 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. As well, it currently has zero positive reviews noted on Metacritic, where it has a 48% score.
According to THR, the show has one decent draw going for it, though it’s partly overwhelmed by more negative elements.
Some interesting biotechnological paranoia keeps Syfy’s George R.R. Martin adaptation from feeling like just another ‘haunted house in space’ take on the genre, but only barely. . . . Nightflyers layers in the creepiness, without rising above ‘unsettling’ into ‘scary.’ Even if attempted jump-cut scares never sink in, Nightflyers, sometimes replaces frights with low-level gross-out moments.
Successful “haunted house in space” projects are usually limited to feature films, as opposed to episodic TV, with Event Horizon, Sunshine and the seminal classic Alien standing out above most others. Horror and sci-fi fans would almost definitely love for Nightflyers to match those movies’ genre efforts, but things aren’t looking very optimistic on that front.
According to Vulture, some of Nightflyers‘ troubles lie in the writing, which is deemed to be seemingly crafted to match up with familiar TV structures, as opposed to making good storytelling the central goal.
The script is a repetitive collection of jump scares and gross-outs that arrive at roughly seven-minute intervals, timed to the rhythm of ad breaks. . . . Like too many recent TV series and miniseries, Nightflyers feels as if it’s running out the clock, padding action to fill predetermined time slots rather than because the story actually needs it.
Granted, a horror-tinged series set in space in 2093 will obviously aim for moments that set viewers on the edges of their seats, However, it’s always more satisfying when a show earns those kinds of moments, and doesn’t just shoehorn them in to fulfill an unofficial quota. Surely not everyone will consider all those moments to be trite, but the sentiment was shared by several different critics.
CNET, which flat-out stated that Nightflyers “is no Game of Thrones,” placed part of the blame on the characters themselves. While people will probably never stop praising the majority of the character ensemble introduced in Game of Thrones, it doesn’t look like Nightflyers will inspire the same level of widespread admiration.
There’s no one on board the ship who doesn’t have some kind of bloody backstory. And with the performances covering the full spectrum from sinister frowny-whispering to sinister angry-whispering, it adds up to a pretty one-note experience.
Unfortunately for genre fans, horror and sci-fi projects tend to be the most guilty of delivering thinly designed characters, who are often seen as secondary in importance behind big sequences and overall plot mechanics. It is worth noting that many reviews, even the negative ones, call out the performances as the show’s most successful element, saying stars like Gretchen Mol, Eoin Macken, David Ajala and Brian F. O’Byrne (among others) did the best they could with the material.
As far as Game of Thrones comparisons go, CNN had a sharply drawn one in its own mostly negative take on Nightflyers.
The desire to catch lightning in a bottle in the way that Thrones did is certainly understandable — one half expects to see “George R.R. Martin’s High School Yearbook” — but Nightflyers merely reinforces that such alchemy is exceedingly rare. And while the two might share literary lineage, the new series is at best a pallid pretender.
Considering how vastly different the two projects are, and that George R.R. Martin published the expanded take on Nightflyers in 1981, years ahead of his mega-popularity in 1981, it’s weird for the two to get mentioned in the same breath. But it does serve as largely indisputable proof that not all adaptations are created equal, no matter where they came from.
Though many of the opinions about Nightflyers fall on the negative side of the spectrum, there were obviously some positive takes on the new series, though even most of those called the series out for several aforementioned shortcomings. In some cases, it’s a matter of one’s threshold for familiar storytelling and genre-specific tropes.
Fewer gratuitous boob shots would have been ideal for Den of Geek, but Nightflyers inspired kind words in its review by excelling at instilling its horror vibe with a stellar opening sequence. As well, the show’s ability to inspire viewer curiosity gained it higher marks.
Despite the overt sexualization of the leading female characters, there is a lot of compelling subtext. What is perception? What is truth? How objective are our memories and how much do they define us as people and as a species?
Perhaps the most positive Nightflyers review came from Vice, where the lone complaint was that “nobody on board thinks anything through.” Here are some more positive words.
The effects are solid enough, keep the creepy vibe real, and the scares are genuinely chilling, rarely relying solely on a startling jump cut. Like Westeros, the Earth of Nightflyers feels deep and reflects Martin’s dark view of human behavior, increasingly reaffirmed by the news cycle.
Viewers will know for themselves soon enough, with Nightflyers premiering on Syfy on Sunday, December 2, at 10:00 p.m. ET, with the second episode airing immediately after. To see what kind of TV might be a little more exciting for fans in the coming months, head to our fall TV premiere schedule and our midseason TV rundown.