With the final season of the blockbuster series fast approaching, everyone is scrambling to find the next George R.R. Martin cash cow. Debuting this weekend, is SYFY’s adaptation of Martin’s 1980 Hugo-nominated novella. Set in the year 2093, this sci-fi/horror genre-buster is as far removed from the medieval-like world of Westeros as you can get.
But you can bet there will be blood—and a very high body count.
(Spoilers for novella below.)
tells the story of a scientific expedition at the fringes of the known universe, with the aim of studying a mysterious alien race known as the volcryn. Their spaceship, the Nightflyer, is sufficiently advanced to require only one human operator—Captain Royd Eris, who communicates only through voice or hologram projections. But there is also a strange malevolent presence on board, sensed by the team’s telepath. A bloody murder spree ensues, with the humans pinning their hopes for survival on a genetically enhanced crew member, Melantha Jhirl.
This first season of SYFY’s will cover everything that happened in the original novella. The fact that everybody dies at the end—in true George R.R. Martin fashion—posed an intriguing challenge for Buhler and his team of writers. Showrunner Jeff Buhler decided to just give the game away in the pilot episode’s cold open, where we see Agatha (Gretchen Mol) fleeing from a murderous fellow scientist. She has just enough time to relay a message to her superiors not to send anyone to rescue the Nightflyer before taking her own life with a saw blade. The rest of the season unpacks everything that led to the tragedy.
“Science fiction for me works best when it reflects something of ourselves.”
“Yes, several people are doomed. I just wanted to get that out of the way in the first four minutes,” says Buhler. “Anyone who’s read the source material has a pretty good idea of where we’re going in general. But I will say that the way that scene plays as a cold open is quite different from the way it plays in episode nine, when we learn what led up to those events.”
There are some key differences from the novella, notably the time period. Martin’s novella was set many centuries in the future, long after the collapse of the human race on Earth in the wake of an interstellar war with aliens. It’s part of his Thousand Worlds fictional universe, along with almost two-dozen other short stories, novellas, and novels written in the 1970s and 1980s.
Buhler opted to set his series in Earth’s near future. In the series timeline, all the extra worlds and alien species in Martin’s expanded Thousand Worlds universe don’t yet exist. He also turned the Nightflyer into a colony-building vessel, rather than having it be a lonely ship that rarely takes on passengers. “The idea was to bring the story a bit closer to our contemporary world,” he says. “Science fiction for me works best when it reflects something of ourselves.”
The SYFY adaptation corrects Martin’s biggest regret: the whitewashing of Melantha Jhirl in both the original cover designs and the cheesy 1987 film version. (Seriously, that film was so bad that director Robert Collector used a pseudonym rather than openly take credit for it.) Martin described her as being “a head taller than anyone else on board… muscles moving fluidly beneath shiny coal black skin.”
But his publisher didn’t think a black woman on the cover would sell, and Martin didn’t feel he had any leverage at the time to make a fuss. Ditto for the film version, which turned Melantha into a white woman named Miranda Dorlac, played by Catherine Mary Stewart.
This time around, Martin had considerably more clout, given his many bestselling books and, the smashing success of . Everyone at SYFY was respectful of his desire to rectify the white-washing, even though he had no official role with the production. “[Mel] was the only [role] where we were very specific about race,” says Buhler. That said, he insists he knew Jodie Turner-Smith would be perfect as Mel the moment he met her. “It had to do with her spirit and her strength, and how incredibly fierce she is, not her skin color.”
As for the rest of the cast, the story called for an international team of scientists, so casting decisions really were based on the actors who best embodied the characters—race, age, gender, and similar considerations weren’t really factors. In fact, other than the Irish-born Macken having to adopt an American accent, Buhler told everyone else in the cast to just use their own accents when speaking.
A haunted spaceship
The ship’s design is the creation of Guy Hendricks Diaz, who also designed spaceships for (2007) and (2016). This Nightflyer is an ever-evolving modular spacecraft, built over many decades. “You can see the modular nodules on the exterior of the ship,” says Buhler. “They’re like LEGOs that can be attached and detached as technology progresses.” Adding a new mess hall, medical unit, or crew quarters is as simple as pulling out one module and inserting another. There’s also a giant rotating exterior ring to generate additional artificial gravity, specifically to maintain the colony domes.
Buhler is a graduate of UC-Santa Cruz, where he majored in biochemistry, and studied a bit of astrophysics. Plus, he’s a longtime science fiction and horror fan, making him pretty much the ideal person to adapt for TV. His vision for the show was not to make space travel too easy. “I love , but it’s a great example of a world where you press a button and then you’re at the next planet,” he says. “You don’t really have a sense of how far away that planet is, and exactly what it means to cross the gulf in between these two oceans.”
“Nobody gets to sleep in a homeostasis pod and wake up at the destination.”
Even though the Nightflyer is the most advanced ship yet built for that time period, there’s no warp drive to be found. “Nobody gets to sleep in a homeostasis pod and wake up at the destination,” he says. “It’s a really long road trip and it plays on people’s psychology.” The crew is heading off into the uncharted territory of “the void.” Only one other ship has ever ventured so far, and it was never heard from again.
Buhler has already outlined the arcs for a second and third season of , should the series get renewed. Except—aren’t the original crew members all dead? That’s why Buhler expanded the size and scope of the cast. “Having a much bigger crew allowed us to build characters around the characters from the novella, with deep emotional ties, so we care about them when they’re put into peril,” he says. “There’s definitely a pathway forward, and it’s quite an interesting and scary one.”
The multiplatform rollout for begins this weekend, keyed to the SYFY air dates. The first five episodes will air Sunday, December 2, through Thursday, December 6, at 10 PM (9PM Central). The last five episodes will air Sunday, December 9, through Thursday, December 13 in the same time slot. There will be weekend marathons for those who prefer to binge their series.