Monday, July 13, 2015

Television Review: Dark Matter and Killjoys

Dark Matter Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Killjoys Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line:  They may not count as classic sci fi, but they are good, fun space opera and both show potential

Dark Matter and Killjoys are Syfy’s two new space-based shows and they are an important step forward for the channel in its return to more science fiction oriented scripted programming.  Dark Matter (which comes from Stargate vets Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie) involves the crew of a space ship that wakes up from suspended animation and cannot remember who they are or why they are on the ship.  They name themselves one through six based on the order they woke up before stumbling upon information in the computer’s database that they are wanted criminals.  They then decide to band together until they can find answers to their situation.  Killjoys follows a group of bounty hunters working for an organization known as the Rack which operates in a distant system known as the Quad.  There are multiple conflicts ongoing between the planets in that system, but the Killjoys that work for the Rack have pledged to remain neutral while pursuing the warrants that they receive.

Both shows are co-productions with the Canadian Space Channel and air simultaneously up north and in the States.  And thus far, both have delivered fun and entertaining space opera that currently leans closer to guilty pleasure than classic sci fi.  Each show heavily borrows its look, feel, and basic concepts from genre television shows and movies that have preceded them and they also have a propensity for copy and paste dialogue and scenes (more so with Dark Matter than Killjoys).  But they have also managed to take some steps beyond the simply derivative and have the potential to develop into very good shows if they can hit their stride.

Killjoys is the better of the two, in my opinion, even if it did get off to a bit of a shaky start.  The first episode setup where John’s brother joins the team could have been pulled from any of another of genre shows and they had to throw in the tired lines about family sticking together.  And the dark, mysterious pasts of Dutch and D’avin feel all too familiar as well.  But since then, it has veered further away from copy and paste and delivered some meaty characters and plenty of moral ambiguity.  And it avoids offering simple, television-friendly resolutions to its stories as it appears to be setting up a grander, more epic arc while also allowing for standalone episodes.

Dark Matter took me a bit longer to warm up to as it liberally borrowed from Blake’s 7, Firefly, The Starlost and more while setting up its premise.  The characters are a pastiche of genre traits and I have the same issue I had with Blake’s 7 early on in questioning why this group of asocials would agree to stay together.  The Dark Matter writers give some justification to this, but it feels more like television contrivances than believable motivations.  The show also reminds me of Stargate: Atlantis in that there is a little bit of story in each episode strung together by one predicament after the next that the main characters must overcome.  Still, the characters are starting to grow on me and I like the fact that they have acknowledged that they need money for fuel and repairs to the ship as well as food and other necessities instead of just ignoring those basics.  And the story seems to be coming together into something that could turn into a potentially standout series.

Another thing that I like about both these shows is that they revolve around strong female leads.  All too often sci fi—especially space opera—gives us the prototypical male lead as it focal point, but each of these puts the women in charge, and the actresses they have chosen are more than capable of holding their own.  This has been a trend of late from Canadian-based genre shows with other entries like Continuum, Orphan Black, Lost Girl, and Bitten turning over the lead roles to women, and I believe it has worked out rather well and has helped broaden the appeal of sci fi / fantasy television.

One buyer-beware note on these shows is that both have a somewhat cheesy feel to them as Syfy is no longer handing out the big budgets they once did with shows like Farscape, Battlestar: Galactica, and the Stargate entries.  We’re not talking old Doctor Who level cheesiness or anything, but definitely the special effects are not a strong point for either of these.  So be sure to adjust expectations appropriately.

Despite that, I have found have both enjoyable viewing thus far and they have helped fill the void of space-based shows on television that has existed since Syfy cancelled Stargate: Universe.  Unfortunately, neither of these two have delivered great ratings for Syfy (I hear their numbers are better in Canada) as genre fans appear reluctant to return to the network that turned its back on them when it rebranded in 2009.  But I do recommend checking these out if for no other reason than the fact that they deliver decent space opera that goes down easy.  And they both have the potential to take that next step toward classic sci fi.

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