Following the successful adaptation of his Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels into the global phenomenon that is HBO’s Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s name evokes a sense of magic — and money. It’s no wonder then that HBO looks to continue employing the equation with its prequels and that other networks, like Syfy with the Sunday premiere of its sci-fi thriller Nightflyers based on Martin’s 1980 novella, would seek to tap into that formula.
Set in 2093, Nightflyers follows a group of scientists and the crew of their transport ship as they charge toward the edge of the solar system in order to make contact with a mysterious alien lifeform known as the volcryn. Eoin Macken (The Night Shift) stars as astrophysicist and lead expedition scientist Karl D’Branin, whose personal trauma drives his effort to save Earth’s inhabitants.
The presence of a mercurial and potentially deadly telepath, as well as strange, violent events on their ship, The Nightflyer, destabilize the trust between the crew and the science team and jeopardize the mission.
Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire) appears as D’Branin’s ex Dr. Agatha Matheson, whose charge, the powerful telepath Thale (Sam Strike), is accused of being responsible for some deadly accidents during the flight. David Ajala appears as reclusive captain Roy Eris; Maya Eshet plays tech Lommie, who prefers machine to human; Jodie Turner-Smith is genetically enhanced cadet Melantha Jhirl, whose loyalty to D’Branin is tested when she captures the attention of Eris; Angus Sampson appears as xeno-biologist Rowan, who doubts the wisdom of pursuing alien contact; and Bryan O’Bryne plays Auggie, The Nightflyer‘s chief engineer of 22 years who is intensely loyal to his captain.
Martin, who recently told the New York Times that the series initially came as a surprise to him, serves as an executive producer on the project that is produced by Universal Cable Productions and co-produced by Netflix. Jeff Buhler wrote the adaptation for television and is the showrunner and executive producer.
Macken, whose D’Branin looks to the skies to ease his Earth-bound concerns, gave Rotten Tomatoes a preview of the series, discussing the wonder and horror of Martin’s space-based fictional universe.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: I was just watching a screener for episode four of the new series, and thought it feels less 2001: A Space Odyssey and more The Shining. In filming it, did it feel like horror?
Macken: It was an exhausting show to film, in a very good way in terms of, after the first episode, which felt a lot more chill, it then became crazy very quickly. From an emotional perspective, you kind of have to be there all the time, because the show really, really pushes the horror element, and you kind of really begin to feel claustrophobic. By episode four, I think we were already kind of losing our minds. By the end of it, I was totally exhausted. So as long as that comes across, then that’s great.
Can you tell me a little about what D’Branin’s motivation is in trying to meet these aliens and give a little backstory about where we find them at the very beginning of the series. How they’ve come to be in this position?
Macken: D’Branin’s motive at the start seem quite clear cut: He wants to find intelligent life in the form of the volcryn. And he seemed to have raised a specific plan and idea. And then as the episode goes on and the show develops, you see his motives are actually a lot darker and a lot more complex than they first appeared on the surface. That’s what I find interesting about him, because he’s very single-minded and emotionally distraught to the point that his decision-making starts to go awry. He becomes a little obsessed with the idea of what these aliens might be able to represent and what this intelligent life might be able to do, not just for humankind but also for himself. I think his reasons become quite selfish and I think his judgment becomes quite clouded, but at the same time I put a lot of pressure on him because he’s the only one that fully understands what the volcryn could actually be and how to actually make contact with them. So I think he ends up in little bit of a vacuum in that regard.
When I was watching the first episode, I noted that D’Branin seemed like an earnest, good guy, but as the story goes on, more and more layers of his character got peeled back. It’s interesting that you describe him as selfish, because initially that’s not what I got from the character.
Macken: I had an idea of where his arc was going to go, and I wanted to try to impart that slowly. I was discovering what the character was, and the writers were as well. D’Branin’s character actually goes much further from episode four, which I find really interesting to be able to explore. He is earnest and he is honest and he is actually a decent human, but he’s got all this trauma that he’s suffering which he kind of represses or deals with in his own way, and it eventually explodes.
Initially for me, the first episode for D’Branin was a false exterior that he’s putting forward, because all of his emotions and stuff are pushed down below the surface. I thought that was interesting. I think a lot of us do that in general; we kind of cope with trauma or cope with situations you just soon not deal with, and you try to put on a certain face and act like everything is fine or try to control it. I think D’Branin has a thing about control as well. And then as stuff starts to go awry, you kind of start to see the issues that he has, and he starts to fall apart a little bit or become more dangerous and obsessed.
Just as in real life as well. It’s interesting that you portray that survival mechanism: the false face that people put on so that they’re accepted by society and they can move forward with their intentions.
Macken: I think we all do that a lot. You never know until you’re put in certain situation — if someone breaks you, or if you’re faced with something or confront something — and you’ve got to figure out how you’re actually going to cope or how you’re going to react. I thought that was really interesting fundamentally about the show itself: The horror aspect of it and the sense of being in space, which is terrifying in itself … being alone [in space] is terrifying. Just that simple concept of what you will do for others or for yourself or how far you’re actually going to go, and to what measures and extremes, what you would do to other people or to yourself for your own selfish ideas and kind of what your value system is, and the people you shatter.
That makes me think of some of his relationships with the other characters. Can you talk a little bit about Karl’s relationship with them?
Macken: I think one of the more interesting relationships ends up being with Lommie, because initially, Lommie ends up being the character that D’Branin is in charge of to an extent. He doesn’t really become aware of her as a person until much later on. D’Branin is looked upon as being a leader, [and] I don’t think that sits very well with him. With Gretchen Mol’s character, the fact, they’ve got this previous relationship coming into surface … which makes everything that they’re doing layered. Romanticism is there, but it’s also that they don’t fully trust each other. I don’t think D’Branin really has anybody on the ship who he fully trusts, or anybody fully trusts anybody else on the ship.
All the relationships appear quite gray. With Sam’s character, Thale, initially there is a lot of conflict there and he doesn’t trust him for a very valid reason, and then Thale becomes what D’Branin actually needs. Throughout the course of this show, D’Branin especially starts to act according to what he needs from people, as opposed to being fundamentally caring about what they actually are, it’s more about what he can get out of them.
Thale is such a volatile character. You can’t really trust his reaction to people, but at the same time, the idea of having a character who other characters cannot lie to is really interesting.
Macken: It creates a strange dynamic between Thale and D’Branin because D’Branin is in charge of what this mission is and what it represents, and Thale is the one who really knows what D’Branin’s motives actually are, but thankfully Thale doesn’t care enough about it. But, D’Branin needs Thale, so I think that’s an important thing for the Thale and D’Branin dynamic. D’Branin can’t solve this mission without Thale.
And he also can’t lie to Thale, but a version of respect is evolving the two of them, but they’re still two characters who are very different with different motivations, and the fact D’Branin needs Thale more than Thale needs D’Branin is quite important.
I keep thinking of one scene, with your face you’re basically telling Thale, Read me, I’m telling you the truth, and I’m totally open to you. It was just such big moment, because it really helps underscore the idea that you can’t lie to Thale — although Thale lies to everyone.
Macken: Yeah, exactly. Everyone has their own secrets going on and Thale is the only one that understands what it all is. Which is what makes it very difficult to trust him, which essentially almost makes D’Branin end up trusting him because he’s the only one that actually knows what’s going on.
And it ends up being that Thale ends up having an awful lot more power than he initially thought he did by virtue of the fact that people need him. Yeah, there’s an interesting power struggle that constantly goes on between D’Branin and Thale which I think is interesting. You have two males on the ship, because neither are really in control of anything.
Discovering all of the characters’ interpersonal dynamics is a great part of this particular story, so, let’s not spoil too much! So in the press, when we hear George R.R. Martin has a new project, our ears perk up of course, and I’m wondering if it’s the same for an actor when somebody says, “We’ve got this George R.R. Martin project”?
Macken: Of course. When this came up, you see his name, you’re like, Yeah, this is interesting. It was more [executive producer] Mike Cahill that interested me, because I had seen his movies, and I thought he had some really, really great ideas. So that was kind of the big draw.
You do see [Martin’s] name and think, This could be cool. This is probably going to be weird at least.
Nightflyers episodes 1-5 debut on Sunday, December 2 through Thursday, December 6 a, and episodes 6-10 debut on Sunday, December 9 through Thursday, December 13 at 10/9c across all SyFy platforms.