Friday, June 26, 2015

Tabula Rasa: SyFy's Dark Matter

Melissa O'Neil and Marc Bendavid in Dark Matter, on SyFy and Space.

Over the past two weeks, the SyFy channel has premiered two new original scripted shows, Dark Matter (on June 12) and Killjoys (on June 19). Both series are also Canadian in origin, screening simultaneously on Canada's Space Channel. Dark Matter and Killjoys join a growing roster of homegrown Canadian SF television, a list which includes two of the strongest SF shows currently running: SyFy's Continuum (which will air its 6-episode fourth and final season this fall) and BBC America's Orphan Black (which aired its third season this winter). Also, like those two shows, both Dark Matter and Killjoys come with strong female lead characters. All of this speaks well for the current state of genre television. But as strong as it is, among all the time travel, werewolves, zombies, and super-evil biotech operatives, there has been something missing in recent TV: where have all the space operas gone? I like a dark global pharma-conspiracy story as much as the next geek, but sometimes I want a few spaceships with my science fiction. And so when Dark Matter opened to a sweeping starscape and slowly honed in a derelict-looking vessel hanging in space, I have to confess that something long slumbering awakened inside me. To paraphrase Captain Kirk (paraphrasing poet John Masefield), sometimes all I want from my science fiction television is a few ragtag crewmembers, a spaceship, and "a star to steer her by."

The recipe is simple: a small crew of charismatic characters, ideally fugitives from "justice" (or whatever passes for it in the deep, far future), working through their personal issues, making new friends and enemies, and kicking a little space-ass along the way. It's a format that has generated some of my favourite shows, each of varying tone and depth: from the surreal, over-the-top absurdity of Rockne O'Bannon's Farscape, to the nuanced allegorism of Joss Whedon's Firefly, to the unapologetic serialized fun of Andromeda. Ask me again come August, but by the time its first season closes, I am hoping to add Dark Matter to that list.

I had initially planned to review both new shows today, but the first hour of Killjoys (its second episode airs tonight) felt hollow and by the numbers. Killjoys, from Lost Girl creator Michelle Lovretta, stars Aaron Ashmore (Smallville, Warehouse 13) and British stage actress Hannah John-Kamen as futuristic bounty hunters who find themselves unwittingly caught up in a mega-corporate conspiracy and perhaps ultimately political rebellion. The premiere episode struggled with establishing its complicated universe of privatized governance and jurisdictional politics alongside its admittedly attractive and wry lead characters. Doing more telling than showing, I never began to care about the characters, their pointedly withheld back stories, or their relationships to one another. In a word, Killjoys left me cold. They do have a pretty cool spaceship though, and I expect I'll check back in mid-season and see if any promise has manifest.

Dark Matter, on the other hand, grabbed me right out of the gate. With sirens blaring and emergency lights flickering, the camera moves through the apparently abandoned spaceship to find six stasis pods coming to life. Each crewmember awakens, with no memory of who they are, their relation to one another, or what they are doing on the ship. For the first hour, the characters don't even have names, opting to refer to themselves and one another by the order they came out of stasis ("One" for the first to awaken, "Two" for the second, and so on.)

Zoie Palmer and Alex Mallari Jr. in Dark Matter.

From the Stargate-trained writer/producer team of Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, Dark Matter comes to SyFy by way of a 4-issue limited run comic series (of the same name) that Mallozzi and Mullie published with Dark Horse Comics in 2012. (The comic itself was an adaptation of a television concept the two had developed, and the book in a way now serves as a soft launch of the show.) On the page, it is a rather straight-ahead tale, albeit well told. The comic was a success back 2012, but the future of the story – its final issue ends with the suggestive coda "End of First Chapter," though no further Dark Horse installments seem to have ever been planned – was uncertain until SyFy picked up the series in early 2014. The first two hours of the show work as a kind of feature-length pilot, and the first hour follows the comic's first two issues almost like a storyboard, with most of the dialogue spoken word-for-word by the cast. It worked on the page, but it works much better on the screen, where the developing chemistry between the characters is more palpable. (I do recommend looking at the book, at least after watching the first two episodes. Since the original story gets us to the end of the second hour, there are no spoilers there.)

What's especially fun about Dark Matter is that its characters know as little about themselves as we do about them, which makes every choice in those first hours incredibly significant. Barely two days have passed by the end of the second episode, and each character quite literally knows themselves as well, and as little, as they know their crewmates. (My only previous experience of a story with a full stable of amnesiacs was the 6th Season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "Tabula Rasa," which worked – poignantly and comically – because we knew so well who the characters and what their relationships were, even if the characters did not.) Here, the audience is as blind as they are, which turns out to be an almost perfect reflection of how it actually feels to watch a new television series – except that in Dark Matter, it's happening for them precisely as it happens for us. The result is a kind of organic narrative slow burn, because everything has to be shown, and not told. Relationships and dynamics are being developed before our eyes, and none of the usual shorthand (how a character dresses, what music they listen to, whether they are divorced, or widowed, etc.) that even strong TV shows often use to establish characters is possible. It is a fascinating narrative experiment that the writers and actors all pull off with remarkable restraint.

The plot moves swiftly, but the characters develop only as stressors increase. Faced with a new circumstance, they either find themselves up to the challenge or they don't. "Two" (Dora Award, and Canadian Idol, winner Melissa O'Neil) has swagger and confidence and quickly emerges as the de facto leader of our mind-wiped crew, "Four" (Alex Mallari Jr.) discovers that he's clearly a master swordsman and martial artist, "Six" (Roger Cross, Continuum) that he knows how to pilot the shuttle craft, and young "Five" (Jodelle Ferland, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) that she a preternatural mechanical ability. (As the youngest person on the ship, with her colourful hair and technical skills, the character cannot but call to Jewel Staite's character Kaylee on Firefly, and it is perhaps no small  praise for Dark Matter say that being reminded of the now-classic series didn't make the new show pale suddenly in comparison.)

Jodelle Ferland in Dark Matter.

Speaking of "Five," one of the more significant shifts from the comic, along with swapping the "sex" of the ship's android (played by Lost Girl's Zoie Palmer) from male to female, comes by way of casting the 20-year-old Ferland in the role of the 15-year-old "Five," a casting choice that will no doubt have narrative consequences down the road. In the book, "Five" is clearly a prepubescent girl – which, for example, makes the instant paternal bond that develops between "Six" and her all the more poignant. In these first two hours, "Five" remains the clear enigma of our cast of characters. Even with how little we know about the rest of the crew, this pales against the almost nothing we know about her. When, at the end of the first episode, the remaining human crew members at least get names for themselves, "Five" doesn't. And, with her strange ability to dream other people's memories, it means that much of what she says is really more information about the others than herself.

The story has already given us some suggestive hints at their backgrounds, and we know they each has a violent past – or, as "Five" reveals, they're "dangerous." Of that, there is no doubt. They're dangerous, perhaps, but they aren't evil. There is certainly darkness there within each of their clouded minds, but it seems to come from the weight of terrible personal histories – histories which no longer burden them. The story also naturally poses some existential questions about personal identity and responsibility that parallel its narrative mysteries. How did they end in stasis with their memories erased? Did they do it to themselves? Can a complete loss of memory and context provide a true opportunity for rebirth and redemption? Can new and different choices truly make a new person, or on some level are they fated to become who they once were?

Patient storytelling and a talented cast of Canadian actors makes Dark Matter a welcome addition to the television field, and right now the series tops my list of new summer shows. And, I should hasten to add, it also honest-to-goodness fun.

Dark Matter airs on the U.S. on SyFy, and in Canada on Space, on Friday evenings. Its third episode airs tonight.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.        

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