NBC’s Debris certainly qualifies as science fiction. Pieces from the wreckage of a destroyed alien spacecraft, first spotted entering the solar system three years earlier, have been falling to Earth for six months. Those individual remnants can each grant their own unique, unimaginable abilities and powers. Or they can cause deadly chaos. Those pieces don’t just defy the laws of physics, space, and time; they often rewrite them. Anything and everything is possible on the show. And that’s the source of Debris’ greatest strength. It isn’t just sci-fi—thanks to its premise, it can also pull from other genres, like horror, action-thrillers, family dramas, spy sagas, and more. Like the show’s main characters, audiences never know what to expect.
Even within its science fiction purview, Debris can touch on any type of story within the genre. One episode can feel like a treatise from a theoretical astrophysicist imagining how wormholes could actually work. Other episodes dabble in time travel, or the idea of suspended animation. In one story, the show feels like an episode of Star Trek; the series’ lead investigators, American Bryan Beneventi (Jonathan Tucker) and his British MI6 counterpart Finola Jones (Riann Steele), essentially explore a foreign planet as a result of debris terraforming a portion of Earth. With so many different types of cases and strange events all over the US, their work feels like Law & Order crossed with Men in Black.
But the series’ biggest cultural influence is clearly another iconic show that also saw two very different partners investigating strange phenomena: The X-Files. Debris tells a larger story about the alien spacecraft and the political turmoil it’s causing on Earth. Yet, at its core, it’s a throwback episodic series. Halfway through its first season, each episode has had a self-contained arc introduced and completed that week. It’s easy to see how the The X-Files influenced the show, both in format and storytelling. As with Fox’s iconic show, that’s why Debris can deliver any type of story it wants.
The show maximizes the creative freedom of its premise. When debris pieces can do anything, your writers can too. And they have, to explore more genres than just sci-fi. The pilot features a creepy kid and floating bodies; it’s far more horror than anything else. In another episode, pod people make it so you don’t know who you can fully trust. You might find yourself pointing a gun at yourself. And that nightmare permeates the show, since even death is not a guarantee of freedom. When it wants to be, Debris is deeply unsettling, especially since it’s not shy about characters meeting horrible outcomes.
The show is also part spy story, too. There’s political intrigue lurking behind the work of its two lead investigators. The most powerful governments in the world want the technologically-advanced debris. As does a well-funded independent shadow group known as Influx. International mystery abounds, and it’s not clear who, if anyone, can be trusted. The “bad guys” might be the only ones trying to do the right thing. Or they might not realize how dangerous their work really is. But this is true for the “good guys” as well. No one can appreciate what’s really going on and why—not when there might be 11 dimensions to the universe. And not when the alien wreckage offers unlimited hope for desperate people.
A character who was willing to risk his life in service to his country might forget his allegiance when a glowing piece of honeycomb metal could save a loved one. That’s why the show also works on a personal level as a family drama. The debris is terrifying and capable of untold destruction. In the wrongs hands, it might very well destroy the entire planet. But in the right hands it might save them, a fact not lost on individuals who have already lost so much personally.
That allure is even harder to ignore when you learn debris is more than just pieces of metal. It’s almost magical, and not just because it bends and alters the very laws of physics themselves. The debris seems capable of empathy, as though the wreckage itself is living and feeling. The pieces can comfort and understand. They can make memories tangible. Something much bigger than advanced technology, or wormholes, or political clout is going on here. Debris, at its emotional best, is mystical. That gives the show an ethos that feels inspired by movies like Contact or Interstellar. There is real heart to the series that is always present, even when it’s thrilling, terrifying, or deadly.
Debris works as a science fiction. But it works as a television show because its much more than that.
Editor’s Note: Debris is produced by Legendary Television. Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.