With our TV screens awash with superheroes, psychos and supernatural spooky-dos, it seems like an age since we had a good old-fashioned, full-blooded spaceship science-fiction show on the air. SyFy are determined to redress the balance with their new thirteen-part series Dark Matter, created by Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie from their graphic novel. On the evidence of the fast-moving and eventful pilot episode, SyFy may well be on to a space-age winner, even if viewers might spend much of this first forty-two-minute instalment playing ‘spot the homage’ as the show blatantly references classic sci-fi shows from Star Trek, Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner and Red Dwarf to 1970s Doctor Who. There’s even a super-smart, sassy, ass-kicking female android in the cast, a passing nod to the Terminator franchise. All we need now is for a boy wizard and a hobbit to turn up in episode two and we’re got ourselves a full house.
Dark Matter is jackdaw sci-fi, liberally pilfering bright shiny things - ideas, concepts, characters - from its illustrious genre forefathers in its determination to get into the audience’s good books. On board a crippled and derelict spaceship (which looks a bit like Serenity from certain angles), six complete strangers awake from stasis with no idea who they are or how they got there. A handy android (which helpfully takes us up to the often de riguer seven main cast members) manages to get the ship back under control but before long it’s under attack and has to avoid lethal missiles by travelling faster-than-light and emerging in the vicinity of a planet which, luckily, turns out to be the ship’s original destination. A landing group travels to the surface of the planet in a handy shuttle. Here they meet a group of ramshackle colonists preparing to fight off a gang of ruthless mercenaries sent by a conglomeration of mining consortiums who want to get the colonists off the planet so they can exploit its mineral wealth. Back aboard the Liberat… err, the spaceship which they’ve randomly named Marauder, the android has done something scientific and salvaged lost data revealing the names of the six strangers. It’s perhaps no great surprise to find out that they’re a ragtag bunch of ne’er do-wells thrown together for a purpose which constitutes the main twist of this first episode.
They say there’s nothing new under the sun and now it seems there might be nothing new out in space either. Dark Matter is quite breathtakingly audacious in its shameless plundering of television’s archive of sci-fi classics; even the ship’s crew of mismatched misfits are lifted virtually wholesale from the Bumper Book of SF stereotypes. The group, who in the absence of any memory of their former lives, worryingly name themselves in the order they awoke - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 - are mercifully reminded of their identities in the last scene but in all honesty we could just as easily have loaned them character names from Firefly or Blake’s Seven. The ship’s new crew includes the well-meaning idealistic young one, the determined, forceful (yet sexy) young woman, the strong silent one who’s surprisingly good with weapons, the shoot-first-ask-questions lughead with a nice line in wry quips, the weird girl with green hair who has strange visions… you get the picture. It’s not just the characters and the scenario which evoke a sort of sci-fi deja-vu; some of the spaceship interiors resemble the aforementioned Serenity and when the landing party boards the ship’s shuttle they look as if they’ve just stepped into Red Dwarf’s handy Starbug.
Yet curiously, despite the fact that the pilot episode doesn’t really offer up even the germ of an original idea, it’s a likable and thoroughly watchable production with a script confident enough to leapfrog its weaknesses thanks to some nice performances from its largely-unknown cast and some workmanlike visual effects. You too may well be minded to give Dark Matter the benefit of the doubt in its first episode; it’s been a while since a TV series saw fit to take us out into deep space and in some ways it’s understandable that the show might want to give us the security blanket of some well-worn genre tropes and archetypes. We’re happy to cut Dark Matter some slack as it sets out its store but it’s going to need to find its own style and direction and sense of purpose pretty quickly if it’s not going to be summarily written-off as a shameless rip-off of a dozen or more far better and far more inventive shows. There’s definitely some potential here, and if Dark Matter’s writers can just set aside their A-Z of TV Sci-Fi and allow their own imaginations free reign without worrying about pandering to the most basic expectations of their audience, this could develop into something refreshingly bold and otherworldly in a TV landscape still dominated by larger-than-life men-in-tights adventures and eerie off-beat long-form conspiracy dramas. Dark Matter could turn out to be a real dark horse…
Dark Matter arrives on SyFy in the US on June 12th, on June 15th in the UK and shortly thereafter all across the world.