I like to watch pilots of TV shows. It’s generally understood that they tend to be rough around the edges, neither the characters nor the plot are expected to be fully fleshed out. But they need to show promise, they do need to make some argument about why this show will be interesting to watch. Most people will likely empathize when I say 90%+ of series don’t hold any interest for me at all. So when I feel compelled to write about something I liked, that’s a real sign of passion – and when I am disappointed in something to the point of blogging about it, it is also because of passion. Science fiction is, among other things, a subject I do care about and it’s also a ready source of disappointment because it’s so easy to get wrong – both subjectively and objectively.
The opening scene of Dark Matter shows us a starship adrift, switches from an overview exterior of the vessel to a camera gliding through empty, damaged corridors until finally centering in on a bunch of confused people who just arrived at the place. I worded this a little vague because that’s exactly the opening scene from Stargate Universe, too.
The differences in execution could not be more pronounced, however. I was never a Stargate fan before, but when that wonderful, rusty old space ship dropped out of FTL to a perfectly orchestrated soundtrack, when the camera panned through the corridors as ancient machines came back to life for the first time in thousands of years, when the view finally centered on that open portal with a stream of panicked evacuees coming through it, I fell in love with that show. Within the first two minutes. The set design was so unique, the space ship built with love and attention to detail, the characters had so much chemistry that I only figured out much later they were in fact not a spinoff of some pre-existing ensemble of characters and actors. These things made me more than eager to forgive and forget many, oh so many, of the series’ flaws for most of its run.
Judging from the pilot, however, Dark Matter could not be more different although it is very clearly and intentionally positioned to fill the niche SGU left behind. Where SGU’s actors and characters were varied and (mostly) interesting, the people in Dark Matter are all young, beautiful, and exceedingly bland. Maybe the utter lack of personality is by design, because the writers literally gave these characters only numbers in lieu of actual names. The problem is though their generic qualities are so oppressively emphatic, as a viewer I really don’t care about any of them either.
Dark Matter’s set design and overall cinematography is so badly done it actually made me laugh out loud at several points while watching it. I swear some of these scenes looked and felt as if I was watching raw footage from an irony-free science fiction LARP, or alternatively, a bunch of business school students in a laser tag arena.
When a generic science fiction show was featured on Castle one time it had a more thoughtfully built set, better CGI, and special effects than Dark Matter. And remember, on Castle it was meant to be funny, but on Dark Matter I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw the twentieth generic spark pyro go off in that generic ship corridor (to hammer the message home that the ship is damaged), or whenever the hilariously bad computer console action was taking place (which was often). My suspension of disbelief was not just interrupted a few times, at no point was any suspension ever allowed to build up in the first place.
And the plot, oh the plot. Amnesia. Literally. It’s like that Buffy episode where Willow had erased everybody’s memory, only without the lovable characters. It could still have worked though, if the show had any atmosphere, or interesting figures, or even just some cool tech.
I apologize if anyone involved in the show ends up reading this, but as a viewer I felt like you were mocking your audience. Like you didn’t care how unconvincing the ship looks, or how strenuous it would be to reach into the deepest wells of patience to muster some semblance of interest for these forgettable characters. The trouble is, and we both know this, dear hypothetical show runner, that you clearly did care at some point – and so did I, obviously, that’s the source of my disappointment. It comes from the fact that this could have been great. A show like that doesn’t get made without people being passionate about it, and it’s so extremely sad that none of this passion made it across the screen. I don’t claim that I could have done better, but I do claim what probably sank this show before it began was there’s obviously someone missing at some place in the production process, someone who says “no” to things.
SGU, for all its many problems, in hindsight, probably had such a person on the team. Someone who cared about making a couple of painted plywood walls and 3D models into an actual place inside the minds of their viewers. Someone who cared about making good hard-science-fiction plots instead of just doing variations on Farscape. Someone who cared more about hiring interesting actors and writing actual characters than merely trying to appeal “to a younger audience”. Of course, on SGU, that hypothetical person didn’t always win. But they made enough of an impact to foster a real connection to the show.
It seems to me, from watching the pilot, nobody on the Dark Matter team cared about these things enough to fill that role. To do good science fiction, it’s not merely enough to append “…in space” to plots and sprinkle them liberally with tech concepts pilfered from 50 years of shows that came before. It must be intrinsically cool. It must appeal to nerds and normal people alike. It must take risks, and it must above all else create a believable world for 40 minutes at a time. These things are incredibly hard, because on top of all that you still have to deliver all the other features people expect from entertaining shows. I couldn’t do this, not even remotely. But I do see when it’s not working. I do see when writers and producers don’t care in places where they should have. And it disappoints me because all that budget, all those years of hard work, all that promise, and all that vision was just dumped on a barren field, and left to rot because someone assumed sci-fi nerds would eat anything.
I regret not the hour spent watching this and blogging about it, I regret that it’s another opportunity unfulfilled.