16 Jan 2017, 19:52

Dark Matter

Having made it through Every Star Trek TV Episode Ever, it seemed logical to try out a newer hard sci fi series. Netflix has been strongly recommending Dark Matter to me, which would have had a lot more credibility had they not also been recommending Grace and Frankie with equal energy. In any case, I eventually bit and have largely enjoyed the trip.

I am only a few episodes into the second season (the latest one currently), and so far I’ve found the show to be an interesting blend of elements from a few other shows. The main characters form a ragtag, improbable group, somewhat like Firefly. The sci fi content is on the hard end of the spectrum, but without the tiresome technobabble of Star Trek Voyager, and really Star Trek as a whole. The “good guys” are explicitly actually “bad guys”, which makes the show relevant in the current antihero era, although plot complications do occasionally challenge one’s conception of badness in general.

The political universe is refreshingly neither utopian (Star Trek) nor disutopian (seemingly everything recent from futuristic media) in nature. Power is invested in multiple competing intergalactic mega-corporations, which probably makes it sound like the basis of a freshman college essay but actually works pretty well. There is no blanket “empire” a la Star Wars that is improbably evil. The formal government appears to be somewhere between a puppet and an explicit consensus installation of the corporations themselves (although Season 2 has invested much more time in this so far than Season 1 did, so my understanding is limited at the moment). The mega-corps are capricious and strongly self-interested, which mostly takes inherent evil out of the equation on their side as well.

With all of this in mind, the moral landscape is also refreshingly not clearly cut like it is in Star Wars, which can feel almost like a fable in its good/bad split. However, this is no Breaking Bad style of rooting for the bad guy, so the show hits a little less heavy and it’s easy enough to have straightforward feelings - good or bad - about the choices made in an episode.

There is an android, admirably acted, who is an interesting counterpoint to Star Trek TNG’s Data. While Data played the striving-to-be-human-by-design Pinocchio angle, this android considers her emergent humanness to be a bug rather than a feature (also an emerging Season 2 plot line). But with very nice continuity with the rest of the show’s thematic character building material, she embraces her “defect” and pursues humanity seemingly out of loyalty and affection for the rest of her crew. Her brokenness plays even stronger since she was designed to be perfect in the scope of her function.

One thing that was clear from the later Star Trek series was that playing an android or otherwise emotionless character is quite difficult. It didn’t help that it was the object-of-desire female character of both Voyager (Jeri Ryan as human-turned-drone-turned-mostly-human Seven of Nine) and Enterprise (Jolene Blalock as Vulcan T’Pol) were given the toughest challenges in this area, as this character in a Star Trek series is mostly playing from behind to start (see also Marina Sirtis as TNG’s Counselor Troy, who gets an undeserved amount of flak in my opinion). The Android in Dark Matter doesn’t explicitly have the “eye candy” role as far as I see it, and her portrayal of the character benefits from a lilting tone that brings dynamism to delivery that is still believable as being synthesized.

I’m a sucker for fresh starts, and I’d have to say I preferred Season 1 over the beginning of Season 2, but Season 1 clearly had the benefit of unwrapping the backstory layer-by-layer, where Season 2 has had to make its own way from the Season 1 finale mostly forward.

This show is a SyFy original, which definitely places it a few rungs down the ladder on a budgetary basis. The special effects never feel so instrumental to the plot that this presents a distraction visually. I do feel that the economy of the writing lacks a bit versus the polished big-ticket stuff, with most of the issues showing up in slow pacing of certain episodes.

Based on where I am right now, I’d say it’s a strong recommendation for someone who has seen enough real sci fi that they know they can tolerate it.