May 28, 2020
BINGE OR NO? Dark Matter, Season 1: Making the Most of Very Little
When a couple of writers behind the old Stargate TV show couldn’t get anyone to bite on their proposed new sci-fi series, they decided instead to publish the story as a four-issue comic book series. “Dark Matter,” published by Dark Horse Comics in 2012, was a solid base hit. Is that what convinced Canada’s Space Channel to finally agree to go forward with the TV series? Doubtful, but it couldn’t have hurt. America’s own SyFy channel got on board as well, and here we are.
Season 1 of Dark Matter aired in June to August of this year – and is already available Netflix. Is it worth binging? Let’s explore, starting with the plot.
In the two-part pilot (which is all the comic book covered), six people wake up from suspended animation in a spaceship with no memory or record of who they are. They’re soon swept up in territory dispute between a poor, innocent, family-operated mining colony and a couple of gigantic, evil interplanetary corporations.
The whole thing is pretty much a Firefly knockoff, but not in a bad way. Our heroes are on the outs with the galactic government, resorting to smuggling and piracy, in the nearly lawless “outer colonies” of the galaxy. If these space cowboys were to show up in Serenity 2, they’d fit right in without even changing their clothes or ship design.
The crew is named One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six, based on the order in which they woke up from suspended animation, and even when they figure out their old names, they choose to go by their number designation instead.
One: He’s a pretty boy and softy who doesn’t really belong among these ruffians, like Firefly’s Simon.
Two: She’s the captain and a badass ninja who is more than comfortable with her sexuality but less than okay with her own predilection for extreme violence.
Three: He’s Jayne from Firefly. That’s really all there is to it.
Four: He’s also a ninja, but that’s okay because no sci-fi show has ever had too many ninjas. He’s quiet except when he spouts badass platitudes, as ninjas are wont to do.
Five: She’s a precocious teenage girl with strange mental powers and the ability to fix pretty much any technology. Imagine if Firefly’s Kaylee and River were in some weird transporter accident that merged them into one person.
Six: He’s a gentle giant, providing a father figure to Five and muscle in battle.
Oh, and there’s one more character: an android who controls the ship with her mind. It’s like if the ship’s computer on the USS Enterprise wasn’t disembodied but instead followed the crew around. I was dubious of how this idea would play out, but it’s actually pretty cool. It’s makes for better television to have the crew interact with an android than sit around at futuristic-looking keyboards typing furiously or barking orders at empty air. Also, the lonely, eager-to-please android is quickly an endearing character.
Okay, so I’ve already revealed that the crew does figure out their real names before the first season is over. In fact, one of the strengths of this show is the pace at which it reveals information. There’s not much teasing of the audience, which is refreshing, but instead great big dollops of information come out in almost every episode.
As it turns out, every single member of the crew has an elaborate, over-contrived, and very hokey backstory. Fortunately, the hokeyness can be forgiven because the show does such a damn good job of building internal conflict in each of the characters as they try to figure out how to incorporate new information about their forgotten pasts (to which they feel no emotional connection) into their new daily lives. For example, should [CHARACTER NAME] still be seeking revenge for the murdered wife he doesn’t remember? It’s pretty interesting stuff.
The best two things the show has going for it are: 1) a fun, Avengers-like dynamic between the characters and 2) some truly kickass fight choreography. The show leans HEAVILY on both, as it should. These two factors go a long way towards covering up the deficiencies, which are mostly budget-related.
No one seems to have tossed a lot of money at this show, but creators Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie (the aforementioned Stargate writers) have certainly made the most of what little they’ve got. The special effects are sparse but solid when they’re needed. Instead of space battles, the action tends to take place either on a sparsely populated frontier planet that looks suspiciously like a derelict manufacturing plant outside of Toronto or on a space station that looks like The Doctor and Rose might pop up at any moment. Yes, the set designs are particularly uninspired – dingy, metal, industrial, 1980s-James-Cameron-looking – but so what? There was never any hope to wow anyone visually on this budget, so they focused on story instead. More shows should follow that lead, and not just sci-fi.
The acting is good enough to sell the dialogue, which is fun and clever rather than stilted and sci-fi-ish. In fact, Five (Jodelle Ferland) and Six (Roger Cross) show so real acting chops so the show got lucky to discover them. Only Two (Melissa O’Neil) qualifies as “bad” in the acting department; she has a million emotions and is determined to shows them ALL on her face, no matter what the dialogue and character call for. (She’s kind of the anti-January Jones.)
Another strength of the show is that it’s excellent blend of episodic storytelling and serialized drama. The crew solves the “problem of the week” AND makes progress in the overarching story in every episode. You quickly become confident that the show is never going to waste your time, even if individual episodes are sometimes a little slow-paced, presumably because of budget. (Okay, maybe the zombie episode was a bit of a waste of time.)
One thing that bugged me is the lack of detail about the universe we’re exploring. I don’t want George-Lucas-esque interstellar tax policy discussions, but come on. A few details can go a long way, and we get none. All we know for sure is: 1) there is a government, 2) there are corporations, and 3) the latter is more powerful than the former.
So, binge or no? If you only like sci-fi when it’s a mind-blowing visual feast, then skip it. No one’s gonna hold it against you. But if you like character-driven space operas that are heavy on clichés and fun, you’re going to find yourself flying through one episode after another without even realizing it. And isn’t that what binging is all about?