I love the fact that space-based TV is enjoying a resurgence at the moment. I don’t pretend to know enough about the TV industry to know how trends work, or why things are as they are, but I love where they are now. In the past year, we’ve had some terrific series: Killjoys, The Expanse, Ascension. 2016 might be the year of the suck, as far as things like politics and police officers and pollsters are concerned, but when it comes to spacey TV, this is one of the best years yet.
And yes, I know a lot of these shows began (and in Acension’s case, ended) in 2015, but the ones that are still here have only managed to get bigger and better. And as far as I’m concerned, Dark Matter is the best of the bunch. It is ridiculous, hokey, far-fetched, often low-budget…and absolutely brilliant.
Season 2 has just started. Being that I’m a Netflix guy – hey, I’m a writer, you expect me to have the money to shell out for cable? – I’ve only see Season 1. Still convinced it’s the mustard. Here’s why.
That first episode
The debut of the series was the trashiest shit I’d ever seen.
My wife and I are constantly on the hunt for new series on Netflix. We watch them over dinner most nights, which is apparently the new version of staring at each other over a table and moaning about your day (suits me fine, frankly). We went for Dark Matter on a whim, and within about ten minutes I thought we’d need to start our search again.
Six people wake up on a spaceship. OK. Lost memories. Fine. Except, they remember some things. The pint-sized Five can fix the ship. Four is lethal with about any weapon you can name. Three remembers how to be a psychopathic prick. Whatever. I’m looking forward to finding out how they all came together, and the inevitable conflicts that –
“There’s an android that wanted to kill us but is now our friend!” Huh?
“Let’s go down to this planet we are in orbit around!” Wait, what?
“Let’s help the colonists defend against the seven foot tall aliens that are apparently coming to kill them!” Um OK, just hang on a se –
“Let’s introduce a host of peripheral characters who we are apparently supposed to care about because six mysterious people onboard a ship wasn’t enough!”
Yeaaaaaaah. Honey, can we find something else to watch?
Except then, the first episode dumps a twist on you. I’m not going to spoil it, except it made me forgive them everything. And the thing is, Dark Matter kept doing this: hokey, credibility-stretching episodes with moments of scattered brilliance that made you want to keep watching. It was extraordinary.
I don’t think the people who made Dark Matter expected their actors to be this good.
After all, this is a vaguely-Firefly-like space opera show with pretensions. They could have hired Adam Sandler, and nobody would have cared much. But they didn’t. The actors who play the ship’s crew knock it out the fucking park.
There’s Melissa O’Neil as Two, the nominal leader of the group. She is stoic, ruthless, decisive…but always manages to look as if she’s only just holding it together. She is fully in control of her sexuality and her choices, and point-blank refuses to play second-fiddle to any of the male cast. The Jamaican-Canadian actor Roger Cross nails Six, a hulking bruiser who is utterly bewildered at his new circumstances, and who has a strong moral compass that gets tested again and again. Five (Jodelle Ferland) could have been so annoying – she’s a Kaylee ripoff with exciting hair – but she manages to be both fragile and endearing.
Top marks, though? Zoie Palmer, who plays the ship’s android. Her performance is a masterclass. The control she has of her body, of her gestures, of the tiniest facial expressions, is just mindblowing. She is always upright and polished, her speech clipped, entirely believable as a benign synthetic organism – and yet, she still shows jealousy, confusion, delight, often in the tiniest movement of her mouth and eyes.
Admittedly, Marc BenDavid and Anthony Lemke as One and Three are little one-note (boring and angry, respectively) but they’re in the minority. For the most part, the actors in Dark Matter are a lot better than they have any right to be.
Or rather, universe-building.
I can’t quite put my finger on why it works. On the surface, it’s workmanlike, often opaque, sometimes frustratingly incomplete. For fans of more in-depth fare like Firefly or The Expanse, it probably feels like the producers didn’t know what they were doing.
Despite a few missteps, the universe the crew exist in feels right. They never exist in isolation. The more time you spend with them, the more it feels like they are one story in a whole galaxy of stories, that the people they meet will go on with their lives when the Dark Matter ship cruises away. It builds gradually, but before you know it, you’re suddenly wondering what the Mikkei Combine will think of their latest move, or whether the person they just met is real, or a temporary clone, waiting to transfer its new memories back to its waiting host. What are the people hunting Four up to right now, and what on earth is Wil Wheaton doing here? (Being slimy and sinister, mostly)
Dark Matter gets a lot wrong – but it also nails a lot of the important stuff. And it makes you give a shit. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it worms its way inside your mind.
The first season was packed with twists, betrayals, revelations. Sometimes it felt like every episode was going to do a big reveal. But you know what? The twists made sense. Each one was earned, each one felt important, and each one added to the bigger story.
Predictably, the season ended with the biggest twist of all. I can’t wait for Season 2 to appear on Netflix. Until then, trust me: go watch. This show is fucking badass.
Still need to read TRACER? (Amazon /B&N / Indigo Chapters)
Our planet is in ruins. Three hundred miles above its scarred surface orbits Outer Earth: a space station with a million souls on board. They are all that remain of the human race.
Darnell is the head of the station’s biotech lab. He’s also a man with dark secrets. And he has ambitions for Outer Earth that no one will see coming.
Prakesh is a scientist, and he has no idea what his boss Darnell is capable of. He’ll have to move fast if he doesn’t want to end up dead.
And then there’s Riley. She’s a tracer – a courier. For her, speed is everything. But with her latest cargo, she’s taken on more than she bargained for.
A chilling conspiracy connects them all. The countdown has begun for Outer Earth – and for mankind.