TV Review: Dark Matter (SPOILER FREE)

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Christ, I miss Space Operas; those stunning, camp, grandiose affairs. I yearn once again for cow-pat head aliens, intergalactic treaties and war. Planets ending in the word ‘Prime.’ Shakespearean dramas and philosophical discourses played out in a series of dimly lit corridors. Alien languages that sound like broken Estonian after you’ve had root canal surgery. And most importantly, a sense of boundless optimism; the idea that humanity (and other sentient life) is going places, exploring that boundless, beautiful frontier.

Until as a society we decided humanity was not THE SHIT, just, shit.

From the mid noughties onwards, television underwent a decline in the amount of Sci-Fi being produced. Particularly of that set in space. Television executives told us to like ‘gritty realism’ instead. Everyone is now poor because of the global economic downturn, so who gives a flying toss about space? Plus, isn’t humanity rubbish? Most of us will never live to see space. We’ll all poop in our or bath water to such and extent that the Earth will resemble brownie batter, only, not delicious.

Circa 2005, television was invaded by moody Scandinavian people in woolly jumpers, glumly staring out of windows for disproportionate amounts of time, zombies, and drug lords making poor life decisions.

Canada remains one of few countries to believe humanity is just aboot okay, and therefore capable of extensive space travel. Canada has always been one of the major contributors to television Sci-Fi. Of that to come out in the last decade include, Ascension (2014), The Expanse (2015) and Killjoys (2015). I was actually quite baffled by the sheer volume of Sci-Fi made in Canada. Let alone Canada’s greatest ever Sci-Fi export, the Mass Effect game trilogy. It’s safe to assume that any modern concepts of futurism are safely in Canadian hands. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_science_fiction_TV_and_radio_shows_produced_in_Canada

I was searching for space faring Sci-Fi on US Netflix (sadly not available on the UK version), when I came across the Canadian produced Dark Matter. After doing a spot of background reading, my interest was piqued when I learnt that: 1) It was written by veteran Sci-Fi writers, J Mallozzi and P Mullie, who also worked on Stargate and 2) It was an adaptation of a visual novel of the same name. Wonderful, I thought, surely this will have a sense of itself and its particular brand of universe from the get go!

Nope.

But it’s still reasonably entertaining, as long as you’re willing to tread onto familiar territory.

Although episodic to a degree, DM’s overarching plot is basically a ‘WHO DUNNIT?’ mystery, set in space. Six passengers wake up from their cryostasis pods with no recollection of who they are or their intended mission/destination. They name themselves One through Six, in the order of who came out of stasis first. Foul play is at work when it is revealed that the stasis pods were deliberately sabotaged to induce amnesia, and only one of the six passengers is culpable.

The subject of memory is core to DM. The ship being named ‘Raza’ and all, a likely reference to the epistemological concept of the Tabula Rasa (either that, or I’m a pretentious arsewipe…)

Potentially bland to some, I don’t actually mind amnesia as a plot device, so long as its sole function isn’t a superfluous means of padding out a pre-existing story arch (see any K Drama). When used correctly, it allows to audience and the characters to experience the surprise and intrigue of revelatory moments together.

DM provides hints of the interesting dichotomy between how the characters want to behave in a given situation, as a ‘blank slate,’ and how they think they should behave when aspects of their history become apparent. Are identities predicated by past experiences, are certain behaviours innate, or are identities entirely fluid, changeable constructs?

Unfortunately, this ‘crisis of purpose’ isn’t always conveyed in an interesting manner, with the majority of the cast pigeonholed into insipid archetypes.

There’s:

  • One – The Pretty-Boy moral compass.

  • Two – The sexy, authoritative lady everybody looks up to.

  • Three – Jayne from Firefly (the macho arsehole), only, not loveable.

  • Four – Quiet Far-Eastern bloke, lets his swords do the talking.

  • Five- The slightly oddball anime-eque girl with an aptitude for mechanics, tech and dreaming.

  • Six – Somewhat stoic, ‘nice guy’ black guy.

  • Android – Data from Star Trek, with bewbs.

All with a wardrobe ascetic of cyber punk meets a bouncer for a Yates’s Wine Lodge.

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You’re not entering this wine lodge in trainers!

There are simply too many scenes of One and Three bickering, with arguments reduced to: altruism vs ‘amoral’ individualism. Not to mention the competition to have ‘sexy-times’ with Two. That being said, I quite enjoy themes of discord, in moderation. It’s a change from much of Star Trek, where crew mates are exemplary chums. DM’s flavour of rampant paranoia was reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, and definitely ramped up the tension in the final two episodes.

If you’re into a bit of world building, DM is a let down. Much of DM’s universe screams derivative, from industrial freighters, mining colonies, smugglers, evil mega-corporations; there’s little to inspire. Annoyingly, there’s also a zombie episode, which just felt like an attempt to be current (a trend that has seemingly lasted a decade).

DM isn’t much of a space opera. It’s not a grand discourse on intergalactic relations with aliens. It’s a small-scale, anthropocentric drama which happens to be set in space. This is by no means a bad thing. I’ve referenced it a few times, but Firefly was was an excellent translation of wild west iconography and spirit in space. Although lacking the wit of Joss Whedon’s writing, DM captures, to a degree, a similar motif of outlaws living on the fringes of society, taking matters one day at a time.

I confess, it’s what wasn’t explained in DM that I captured my imagination. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Earth is still kicking around in DM’s universe, or whether it was destroyed forcing humans to colonise space and terraform alien planets. I also wondered whether nation states still existed, as for some reason the Japanese seem to have their own intergalactic empire based on Medieval feudalism. Likewise, have nations been dissolved by hyper-capitalism, are humans owned by mega-corporations?

Argh, there’s so much exposition to be had!

DM is by no means an iconic or highly original property. The human drama, and revelatory premise is however gripping enough to sustain interest. Despite, the revelation of the ‘traitor’ in the season finale, there are still many unanswered questions, particularly surrounding, One, Two and Four which leaves me genuinely curious as to how this show will proceed in its second season.

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