Nightflyers review: Sci-fi horror journey stretches itself too thin

Based on a novella by George R.R. Martin, this spooky series is no Game of Thrones.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

You're about to make first contact with aliens. Who do you send on this most momentous of missions? Humanity's best and brightest, to shepherd us through an encounter that will change the cosmos? Or a bunch of violent misfits and weirdos who watched Event Horizon and thought, now that's a great way to run a space program?

Nightflyers is a new SyFy sci-fi horror series based on a 1980 novella by George R.R. Martin, creator of Game of Thrones . The iron throne casts a long shadow -- can Martin's back catalog produce something as gripping as HBO's fantasy smash hit? 

It's 2093, and the Nightflyer is falling through space. Things have gone a bit The Shining on the stricken ship, but before we find out why, we flash back to the beginning of the mission. Disease has taken hold of Earth, so the Nightflyer heads off into space to make first contact with distant aliens.

Of all the people to take part in the most significant mission in human history, they choose (checks notes) a grief-stricken scientist who happily deletes crucial data, a weirdo Peeping Tom captain no one's ever actually seen, a pair of ex-lovers with unresolved issues, and a very angry telepath with a tendency to reach into people's worst memories. 

The cockney telepath is played by Sam Strike, one of the psychos from Mindhunter, which just about says it all. 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.

As if the crew isn't volatile enough, the Nightflyer is one of those spaceships where the interior decorator's brief was to be as gloomy and creepy as possible. Shadowy corridors echo with children's voices, red lights glow nightmarishly, and video screens glitch people's faces into skulls. It worked in Event Horizon, which heavily leaned into the gothic shenanigans to entertaining effect. But Nightflyers doesn't commit enough to the weirdness to pull it off.

Nightflyers - Season 1
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Nightflyers - Season 1

In space, no one can hear you meander.


There are some genuinely compelling scares. A remorseless spider-droid provides some nail-biting tension, and nightmarish visions evoke classic movies Don't Look Now and Silent Running. But they're mixed in with cheaper scares like a spooky-ooky child announcing "Your friends are going to die now."

The show depicts an interesting vision of humanity fragmenting, with telepaths, clones and cyborgs all pointing in different directions for what it means to be human. By Episode 5 some of these disparate crew members team up to take the story in intriguing directions. But having watched the slow-burning first half of the season, it's hard to shake the feeling the characters are stretched too thin for a 10 episode series.

Nightflyers begins on SyFy in the US on Sunday, Dec. 2, with a new episode every night from Sunday to Thursday for two weeks, finishing up with Episode 10 on Dec. 13. It'll also be on Netflix elsewhere around the world.

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