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NIGHTFLYERS’ True Horror Lies in Its Looming Influences

NIGHTFLYERS’ True Horror Lies in Its Looming Influences

Literary critic Harold Bloom called it “the anxiety of influence”: the struggle of authors to overcome the influences exerted by earlier texts or writers over their writing. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, but those influences are always unavoidably present in the process of creation.

It’s a concept very much at work in the TV series Nightflyers, currently airing on Syfy. Like many science fiction dramas, Nightflyers showcases a cast of characters who want to leave their pasts behind; no one in a Syfy show boards a spaceship without something to hide, or at least something they want buried. In this case, two of these somethings are controlling predecessors. While super-soldier Melantha Jhirl (Jodie Turner-Smith) grapples with the sense of duty fostered by the forces that dictated her life, captain Roy Eris (David Ajala) is struggling to escape his mother’s shadow.

As Turner-Smith noted in an interview, Melantha “has spent her whole life on a path that was set out for her by other people.” Becoming a genetically engineered super soldier and setting out on a dangerous mission in outer space “weren’t necessarily her choices,” and now she’s “being thrown out into the sea with a bunch of people who have been exploring the galaxy for years.” She added that Melantha’s situation was eminently relatable for her, having grown up in a family of Jamaican immigrants in Britain. “You’ve got this idea of the expectation of your community or the expectations of the institutions you’re a part of…and how that pressure affects you.” In space, no one can hear you break down internally.

On a similar note, during an on-set interview Ajala described Roy’s relationship with his mother Cynthia as “an internal horror” rooted in “almost a psychological bondage.” Although the show takes place after Cynthia’s death, her hold over her son remains—not least because she founded the Eris Corporation, the company that owns the Nightflyer and most of the galaxy. For Roy, said Ajala, the big question is, “My mother has so much control over me; what would happen if I choose to go my own way?” That’s where his personal horror lies, in the influence of a dead but powerful authority figure.

But surely lots of characters in lots of shows have parental issues or deal with the duty-versus-individuality problem, you might say, and you’d be right. So why talk about Nightflyers?

The short answer: context. Long before it aired, Nightflyers was compared to various landmark movies and TV shows, to the point where it couldn’t possibly live up to all of them. The horror on a spaceship plotline = Alien, with shades of Event Horizon and classic straightforward horror. Other outlets compared the show to such movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and The Shining. Then, of course, there were the slew of comparisons to Game of Thrones, mainly because Nightflyers is loosely based on a 1987 novella of the same name by George R.R. Martin. “This spooky series is no Game of Thrones,” said CNet. The AV Club called it “more Event Horizon than Game of Thrones,” in a referential twofer. It’s worth noting that beyond a shared author for their source texts, Nightflyers bears almost no relation to Westeros’ finest, but that doesn’t stop the pop culture processing machine.

Not that this is a new phenomenon. Every other movie, show, franchise, etc. seems to be sold under the guise of “It’s [Existing Pop Culture Product] meets [Other Existing Pop Culture Product], but in [Setting]!” Like marketing Mad Libs.

“It’s Game of Thrones meets Rick and Morty, but in a 1950s alternate-reality Britain!”

“It’s Doctor Who meets The Office, but in post-apocalyptic Japan!”

“It’s E.T. meets Stephen King, but in suburban 1980s America!” (Oops, that’s just Stranger Things.)

Now here comes NightflyersAlien meets Event Horizon meets the late 2010s, in future space—trying to escape the looming shadow of Game of Thrones and Kubrick and the famous quotes and scenes from the many influences it can’t seem to shake off. Like its own Melantha and Roy, it’s trapped in a pattern of impossible expectations. Maybe the only way to get past that is to break out, to carve a new path across the airwaves that resists comparison to anything. Or maybe the anxiety of influence is too strong, and it’s already too late.

Images: Syfy

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