Nightflyers and the History of SciFi Horror

first_img In the early days of science fiction, the genre was a pretty optimistic one. Sure, the bold adventurers might run into opposition from alien life out there in the void, but at the end of the day sci-fi was about man’s triumph over the unknown. The increasing scope of human knowledge and ingenuity would give us the tools we needed to surmount any interplanetary challenge.That didn’t last, obviously. Seminal sci-fi works like The War of the Worlds freaked us out, as Orson Welles’ radio drama whipped the populace into a panic. As soon as man actually touched the endless void, we realized it was more than a little scary. The rise of the horror genre coincided with the maturation of sci-fi, and the two have been inextricably linked for decades.Early science fiction stoked the human fear of the unknown with stories of grotesque aliens from beyond coming to our planet to conquer or kill us all. It also tapped fears of technology running out of the control of its inventors, creating monsters of various sorts from Frankenstein on forward.What makes horror such a satisfying subgenre of science fiction is the way it combines so many basic human fears into a single package. Claustrophobic? Try being in a spaceship that you literally cannot leave. Afraid of wide open spaces? Space is the original wide open space. Alien creatures can combine the visceral horror of snakes, spiders, and other beasts that trigger instinctual reactions in our primitive brains. It’s a very potent canvas to paint all sorts of stuff on.Nightflyers, now airing on SyFy, taps the pedigree of Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin to deliver a fresh take on some of the genre’s most time-tested tropes. The ten episode show — based on a 1980 novella that had also been made into a 1987 feature film — hits some of the sweet spots right out the gate. A small crew on a lone ship venturing into the unknown? Check. Unseen threats and mysterious life forms? You got it, buddy.If this all sounds familiar, it should — it’s note for note the same threats we saw in what might be the touchstone movie for sci-fi horror, Ridley Scott’s brilliant 1979 Alien. Based on a script by Dan O’Bannon, Alien played out like a haunted house in deep space. The crew of the Nostromo is returning to Earth in suspended animation when their onboard computer hears a distress signal and, by company policy, wakes them to investigate it. It turns out to be a parasitic life form that lays eggs in one of them. The eggs hatch in a classic gross-out and rapidly grow into a sleek, black predatory creature that stalks from the shadows and leaves just one crew member alive.Monsters hiding inside unsuspecting people is a major trope of horror, and three years later John Carpenter would touch on that theme in his The Thing. Again, it taps into very specific themes — isolation, paranoia and the fear of the unknown, as a shape-shifting creature is extricated from the Antarctic ice and proceeds to terrorize the skeleton crew of a research station.Even before those two films, though, one of the most critically acclaimed sci-fi movies of all time folded in scary elements into its surreal, wide-ranging plot. The majority of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 deals with the evolution of human consciousness, aided by a mysterious monolith, but the sequence set aboard the Discovery One craft on its way to Jupiter is pure psychological horror. Astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole have to deal with to the ship’s onboard HAL 9000 computer, which develops a kind of paradoxical sentience and tries to murder them. This theme — Man’s creations run amok — is core to a whole strain of science fiction of which Nightflyers comfortably belongs.Here’s the pitch for the show, if you haven’t tuned in yet. Earth is on its last legs (true), and the last best hope to save us all lies in the knowledge of an alien race called the Volcryn. Unfortunately, they don’t seem interested in communicating with us, so a colony ship called the Nightflyer is dispatched to meet them with a telepath onboard to facilitate non-verbal diplomacy. Needless to say, because this is horror (and a George R. R. Martin joint), things go horribly wrong pretty quick, with the crew suffering bizarre hallucinations and Thale, the psychic, held responsible. Cue paranoia, tension, and terror.In the original novella (spoilers follow here, so be warned), the malevolent force besieging the ship is captain Royd Eris’ deceased mother, herself a powerful psychic who cloned herself a son to use as a puppet plaything. Even in death, she maintains her incredible abilities, which she has imprinted on the ship’s AI, allowing her to become a literal ghost in the machine. That twist came pretty early in the TV version, at the end of the third episode, and since then the show has just amped the source material up even further.Doing horror for television is a different beast than in the relatively compact running time of a movie, and Nightflyers — which was adapted into a feature film in 1987 – knows that. The rhythm of tension and release at the core of effective scaring needs a lot of variety to pull off for eight hours, so in addition to the big scares — open space, mental manipulation, rogue AI – the show throws in an agoraphobic commanding officer, a genetically engineered crew member and more. But horror is also at its best when it’s lean, and that’s where the show strays.There’s just too much going on here — with the big twist coming less than a third of the way through, Nightflyers has to keep pushing the envelope to varying levels of effectiveness. By the eighth episode we’ve had a pregnancy, a plague, a murderous little girl, a ship of space cannibals and more, and returns are diminishing. Showrunners have said they see it being a multi-season series, which is even harder to do in horror – eventually you need to resolve that tension or else the mystery will lose potency.Nightflyers was aired on an accelerated schedule, with SyFy premiering a new episode every night for ten days and then putting them immediately up online. If you didn’t tune in, our verdict is in the middle – the show has some great aesthetics and clever character concepts, but when we compare it directly to the titans of the genre it doesn’t stack up. That said, what does? Nightflyers does boast some truly solid performances, impressive and sometimes truly shocking gore and interesting meditations on the nature of perception and reality. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t look like it’ll be a Game of Thrones-level hit, but dude has plenty of money anyways.More on Reveals Most Binged Shows and Movies of 2018New ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 Teaser Will Chill You to the Bone8 Nostalgic Board Games Based on Sci-Fi Flicks Stay on target ‘Game of Thrones’ Targaryen Prequel Series Is Reportedly Coming to HBO‘Game of Thrones’ Star Kit Harington Joins Marvel’s &#… last_img

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