Friday, 9 October 2015

dark matter

dark matter is a 13-part tv series set in space about a group of amnesiac space mercenaries who take on space zombies and space samurai in their quest to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing out there. yes, adding ’space’ in front of any word automatically makes it awesome.

the crew of the raza emerge from stasis to discover that not one of them can remember who they are or what they’re doing there. not knowing their own names, they refer to each other as numbers based on the order they came out of stasis and then they do their best to get along while trying to survive warring corporations and enemies from a past they don't recognise.

this central conceit of the characters having amnesia feels like a somewhat old-fashioned narrative device, but it is still effective and means that the audience comes into the story on the same page as the characters; we don’t have to try to remember huge amounts of backstory about these people because they’re learning at the same time we are. it also infuses the story with a sense of mystery from the very start, and the writers effectively weave this sense of mystery into other parts of the show. there’s the locked vault in the cargo hold that none of the crew members can figure out how to open, there’s the huge stash of weapons they appear to have been delivering before they lost their memories, and there’s the android who runs the ship and also appears to have a glitch in her programming that makes her a little more human than she should be. added to this, there are mysteries surrounding each of the characters and the show makes it clear that you should never assume anything about anyone. there are also some interesting themes being explored here, around whether people are born bad or whether they develop that way due to outside influences.

at the same time, dark matter is a hard show to get into at first and employs a number of narrative devices that, intentional or not, serve only to alienate the audience and keep their sympathies at a distance. using numbers for the character names seems like a cool idea but it’s actually incredibly confusing for the first few episodes, and becomes even more so when the characters learn their actual names. some of them even have a third name, which is even more confusing. even in the last few episodes someone would say something like ‘where’s six?’ or whatever, and i'd have to really think about which one six was. but that’s minor compared to the other alienating element, which is that at least four of the characters essentially start off being almost identical. usually shows featuring a team have one total badass – jayne in firefly, faith in buffy, the hulk in avengers … currently i can only think of joss whedon titles, but you know what i mean; there’s usually that one guy who no one will mess with and he/she is a bit moody or whatever but will do something unexpectedly cute or heartfelt one time, subverting expectations. here there are four of those characters, and while there are minor differences it does feel at times in the early episodes like they're serving the exact same function.

at the same time, the fact that four of the characters are so similar is a stroke of genius. like the characters' memories, the stereotypes they fall into act as blank slates and as the series progresses we learn that they aren’t quite as similar as they first appeared. that’s the thing with this show – it takes a while to really get going. it felt like there was something missing in the first half of the series like it was trying to find its feet, but once it does there are many cool things to enjoy here.

the first thing i really started to like about it is how much it reminded me of a number of awesome video games. the ship and some of the crew reminded me of mass effect at times and i think in many ways this is the closest thing we have to a mass effect tv show. there’s also a hint of deadspace, particularly in the episode where the team board a ghost ship overrun by space zombies. finally there’s a cyberpunk element, which is obviously a nod to the works of william gibson and bruce sterling, but at the same time really made me think of the last deus ex game.

there’s also something refreshingly retro about a show set in space. star trek is a movie franchise now, and i’m not the biggest sci-fi fan but it seems a long time since we had anything like this on tv. there are also all these other elements thrown in, like a planet that seems to be stuck in feudal japan which leads to a gunfight with samurai, and the aforementioned space zombies. it’s like the producers took the essence of those old space shows and threw in all the cool stuff from videogames and pop culture.

the best thing about dark matter far is the lead character, two (or portia lin, because like the show if i start calling people by numbers it’s going to get very confusing) who, going back to mass effect, really reminded me of commander shepard (at least, it reminded me of the way i played commander shepard anyway). she’s this supertough leader but you can see that she really cares about the other crew members and she has a lot of heart, and that this is constantly in conflict with her more violent, survivalist instincts. she also has a refreshingly realistic sexual appetite and the relationships between her character and two of the men on the ship are among the most normal and relatable that i’ve ever seen on tv, certainly for a sci-fi show. melissa o’neil does an amazing job with this character, adding a complexity to her actions that keeps you guessing about whose side she’s really on right until the final episode, and it's this performance that really holds the whole thing together.

there are many other things to like about dark matter, including some cool guest appearances from people like david hewlett (if you don't know who david hewlett is, he's in a film called nothing, which if you haven't seen you should check out immediately) and wil wheaton. in its weakest moments earlier in the series it feels like it wants to be as entertaining as firefly but lacks the wit, or it wants to be as brutal as game of thrones but lacks the conviction. however, at other times it becomes its own unique tale with its own unique characters telling their own story, and in those moments dark matter is really rather impressive.

dark matter has been renewed for a second season, so if you haven’t seen it yet i would definitely recommend checking it out on dvd. there are some cool extras too, particularly one where we are shown the moment the actors discover a major plot point on set. if you like oldschool sci-fi dark matter is worth checking out just to see people having episodic space adventures again, and equally if you were a fan of mass effect and deadspace then i predict you will find a lot to like here too.

dark matter will be released on dvd by rlj entertainment on 12th october 2015


  1. Hey Paz,

    Really cool review but I do have an objection. I never made it past the second episode for a single, yet very important, reason:

    The acting sucked.

    Even for a crew with amnesia and I-don't-know-who-the-fuck-am-I attitude, they were lost in space (pun intended) and seemed like a bunch of amateurs trying to do the best with a script they didn't even try to understand.

    The humor was, hmmm... well... not funny and honestly, I didn't care about any of them. Even the android was badly played.

    Maybe I need to force myself through the first episodes. What do you think? Is it worth it?

  2. honestly, i felt the same way until about episode 7, then i got really into it. i think some of the performers are better than others, but i also think it takes a while for them to find their way into the characters.