Syfy's 'Nightflyers' Takes Psychological Horror into Space

Can lightning strike twice? That's the question hovering around Syfy's upcoming space-horror series Nightflyers, an adaptation of a cluster of 1980s short fiction written by George R. R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones.

Martin has likened his Nightflyers fiction to "Psycho in space." Set some seventy years from now, the Syfy series follows a team of scientists aboard the The Nightflyer, bound to the edge of the solar system in the hope of contacting an alien life form. But there's a few complications: Earth is beset by plagues, and no one knows how to communicate with this extraterrestrial species (or if they're even friendly in the first place). Professor D'Branin thinks humanity's last best hope is to bring a volatile, potentially deadly L1 telepath known as Thale (Sam Strike) into space as a kind of universal translator. Suffice to say, the plan doesn't go off without a hitch.

The cast and showrunners of Nightflyers took to the stage at New York Comic Con on Friday to talk about the project, following a debut screening of the first episode. Showrunner and Executive Producer Jeff Buhler was joined by fellow EPs David Bardis and Gene Klein, along with series stars Eoin Macken (Karl D'Branin), David Ajala (Captain Roy Eris) and Gretchen Mol (Dr. Agatha Matheson).

Since Nightflyers is based on a 100-page novella and several short works, the showrunners had more freedom to build upon the framework established by Martin. "We tucked some mysteries in there that aren't in the book," Buhler explained. "It was really an opportunity to take the world that George created, this mission, and just fill it it."

But fleshing out that world doesn't mean fans should expect a lot of lore surrounding what happened on Earth to inspire this mission. "We don't spend too much time on the apocalypse of it all. That's a trope we've seen in a lot of science fiction shows," said Buhler. "George's book takes place hundreds of years in the future. What we wanted to do with the series is was bring things back to our experience. We know that the problems that we'll probably be facing in the next century have begun to happen, to some extent."

The cast and producers of SyFy's 'Nightflyers,' based on the science-fiction horror short works of George R.R. Martin, at New York Comic Con 2018. Newsweek / Jen Glennon

Instead, Nightflyers will focus on exploring the minds of its crew, which begin to unravel even in the first episode. "Karl starts off pretty stable, seems like he has it together. But then, as you see, he's not really stable at all. It kind of gets worse from here on in. Jeff [Buhler] pushed him to some very dark places," said Macken with a laugh.

The Nightflyer's captain isn't like other spaceship captains we've seen before, lacking the statesman-like qualities of a Picard or the bombast of a Kirk. He keeps to himself in his quarters, observing the crew through cameras and interacting with the bridge crew only via holographic projections. "He is a little bit shy, but he sees a little chocolate queen, Melantha (Jodie Turner-Smith), and he goes 'Oh, i'll have a little bit of that.' She's the thing that kicks off The Unnerving of Captain Eris."

Throughout, the panelists called attention to Nightflyers' horror chops. "This show is a love letter to horror fans," said Buhler, citing films like The Shining, The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror as influences on the show. But, he added, there was no single inspiration. "We found that you could create different stylistic impressions, different approaches to horror, in different parts of the show. It takes a weaving, winding path through our favorite horror references. I'm not afraid to pull from stuff that I love. It's all meant with the greatest respect."

By the end of the first episode, it's very clear the crew of the Nightflyer is in an extremely precarious situation. Like Game of Thrones, it's clear no one is safe. Even so, Klein says "there's a really firm plan for Seasons 2 and 3" if the show finds an audience.

Buhler noted that planning a multiseason story arc required a bit of a departure from the source material. "In the book, everybody dies, so we have to take some liberties. We even unkilled someone over the course of the season."

"I'm really glad you unkilled that person," Ajala chimed in with a laugh.

Syfy plans to appeal to binge-watchers by debuting the first five episodes of the season on consecutive nights, starting Dec. 2 and running through Dec. 6. Episodes 6-10 will air Dec. 9 through Dec. 13, meaning the entire season will air in just two weeks. Syfy also plans weekend marathons of the show to help fans catch up.