At SDCC 2018, we spoke to the cast and crew of SYFY’s Nightflyers, based on George R.R. Martin’s novella of the same name.
Nightflyers, which premieres this fall on SYFY, aims to create a genuinely scary viewing experience for science fiction fans.
Branded as ‘horror sci-fi,’ the series promises that no one is safe — and indeed, the first few minutes of the pilot screened at San Diego Comic-Con 2018 proved this to be true.
Without giving too much away, the stakes of those first few minutes are sky-high, and it all goes disastrously wrong… with Nightflyers EP Jeff Buhler teasing that at least part of the first season will be devoted to catching the story up to that terrifying point in time.
SyFy’s Nightflyers stars Gretchen Mol, David Ajala, Jodie Turner-Smith, Eoin Macken and Angus Sampson, all of whom were in attendance at the SDCC 2018 panel and press event, which Hypable attended Thursday, July 19.
Also present were executive producers Gene Klein, David Bartis and Jeff Buhler.
The series is based on George R.R. Martin’s 1980 novella of the same name, which follows the crew of the Nightflyer, a ‘haunted spaceship’ stuck in deep space. While the novella takes place in Martin’s ‘Thousand Worlds’ universe, the creators of the SyFy adaptation have chosen to set it a little closer to home: specifically 75 years into our current future, where mankind is still searching for signs of alien life.
Because Martin has an exclusivity contract with HBO, he is not directly involved with the production of this series, but he has previously offered his hearty support and even appeared in a brief introduction video airing ahead of the new trailer for the series.
Interviewing the cast of ‘Nightflyers’ at SDCC 2018
Before we tell you all about Nightflyers, let’s hear it from the creative team themselves!
In this video interview from SDCC 2018, stars David Ajala and Gretchen Mol introduce their characters and the ways in which the tension is grounded in relatable humanity:
Executive producers Gene Klein and David Bartis elaborate on the design of the ship and the ways in which Nightflyers incorporates real science and realistic design elements:
And finally, EP Jeff Buhler and star Angus Sampson tease what science fiction classics we can expect Nightflyers to pay homage to:
Read on for more information about Nightflyers revealed in the press room and panel at SDCC 2018:
What is ‘Nightflyers’ about?
At the Nightflyers panel, moderated by SYFY WIRE’s Karama Horne, Buhler explained the premise of the series as such:
“[Nightflyers] is a journey to make contact with the first known alien object, or racem out there. [It’s about] a group of scientists on the most advanced space craft ever built, the Nightflyer, and most of them are the scientific team. The journey of the Nightflyer is the mission to make contact with this object that has been discovered flying past our solar system.”
The mission is orchestrated by Eoin Macken’s character Karl D’Branin, who genuinely believes that alien life is out there. The reason for pursuing seeking out aliens, as the cast explains, is a desperate hope that this alien life form can somehow help humanity survive — because 75 years from now, our planet is dying.
“The idea was to paint a picture of Earth where life isn’t working anymore,” Buhler explains. “It’s not an apocalypse, but we know that it’s not sustainable, and there’s a push to build off-world habitats.”
Karl, however, starts to believe that maybe there is a way to save Earth with the help of these aliens, which “could potentially help us turn our world around.” So he assembled a team of scientists, who board the Nightflyer and head deep into outer space, only to discover that the real danger to humanity might lie within our own psyche.
Aside from being scary and engaging, Nightflyers also seeks to ask big questions about the nature of humanity. “There’s a rush to build colonies. But is there some moral imperative to spread the human race, or is there another way to address these problems?” asks Buhler.
In the press room, he elaborates: “What is the course of the human race? What does the future of our Earth look like? How are we gonna use technology to address these issues, and should we? Have we earned the right to expand beyond our planet or not?”
Macken adds that one of the core questions of the series will be, “deciding how much you’re willing to sacrifice to save the human race. What will you sacrifice for the greater good — or [does] your idea of the greater good becomes subjective?”
Nightflyers thus aims to realistically imagine the humanitarian crisis that we are indeed on the brink of, if we don’t find a way to save our planet. Perhaps it can even serve to make us think critically about our current reality, like all the best science fiction is able to do.
Meet the ‘Nightflyers’ cast
The Nightflyer’s crew is assembled by Karl d’Branin, who brings in a group of scientists specifically for this alien life-seeking mission.
This adds some initial tension, as “the crew of the Nightflyer are used to building colonies,” says Buhler. “And when captain Eris [David Ajala] decides to take on this mission, it’s a shift from their normal behavior. It brings a lot of tension.”
All of the characters are designed to be relatable in some way, struggling with human issues even in the midst of the science fiction horror narrative. At its core, the series is a psychological thriller, where the horror mainly stems from these characters’ inner lives as opposed to external threats.
One of the most exciting early news items about the series, as indeed George R.R. Martin agrees, was the casting of Jodie Turner-Smith as the genetically engineered Melantha.
In a blog post, Martin explained his frustration with the fact that Nightflyers adaptations and book covers continued to depict Melantha as a white woman, and his delight that this series finally got it right.
Wrote Martin, “Maybe it took thirty years, but at long last I can say: now, that’s Melantha Jhirl.”
At the Nightflyers panel, Turner-Smith introduces her character:
“[Mel is] an incredible woman who has spent her entire life training to be an astronaut, to live off-planet, because our world is dying … she is genetically engineered, there’s a lot about her that’s different. She is super-focused towards this one life goal that culminates in getting onto the Nightflyer, which is supposed to be the experience of a lifetime.”
David Ajala’s character, Roy Eris, is perhaps the most intriguing member of the team — in that he is a hologram.
“He’s elusive, there’s a whole backstory to his character, and he struggles with human interaction,” says Ajala. “This journey becomes a catalyst for him to become the best version of himself.”
Eoin Macken’s character Karl d’Branin “has a lot of issues” says Macken. Some of these issues have to do with his daughter, whom he says goodbye to in the trailer, and who later, somehow, appears aboard the Nightflyer.
“Karl is obsessed, and convinced they’re gonna meet these aliens if they do this,” Macken explains. “No one really knows where they’re gonna go, no one’s gone this far in space, and so from the start the whole thing is complicated.”
All of these characters are designed to be intriguing and relatable — but don’t get too attached! The cast and EPs all warn that, in true George R.R. Martin tradition, a lot of characters are going to die over the course of the first season, leaving us to wonder if there’ll be anyone left to root for if Nightflyers flies on for season 2…
Leaning on the shoulders of sci-fi greats
Not only is the story of Nightflyers engaging and intriguing, but the creative team have put a lot of effort into constructing a practical, realistic world for these characters to inhabit, relying heavily on practical effects and even building a real space ship.
As they explain in the press room, the Nightflyer ship is more ‘realistic’ than other spaceships you might see on screen, as it has been imagined to have endured over many decades, with some pieces of the ship being older than others.
It was important for the team that there would be bits of technology we recognize from our own time, mixed in with elements of both science and tech that are “just over the horizon” from where we are today, adding to the grounded and realistic feel of the series.
Nightflyers also works hard to pay homage to the “sci-fi greats,” with the first seasons constructed like “The Shining in space,” with lots of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Psycho in there.
“What fascinates me about The Shining is that it’s hardly ever dark. People often say it needs to be dark for horror to work, but that’s not true. It just has to be scary,” says Buhler.
Alien is another main influencer, and the show is actually shot with the same lenses that Ridley Scott used for that film.
In the press room, Buhler goes into more detail about some of the specific treats for sci-fi fans to look out for. “We pull from [the classics] in different ways,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes it’s a visual.”
One of those visuals will be a recreation of the iconic The Exorcist poster, featuring Angus Sampson’s character Rowan.
But Buhler promises that audiences who aren’t up on their horror trivia will still enjoy the series. If you aren’t looking for the references, you will get sucked in by the human drama, thinking, “Oh my god, this is an incredible mission, who are these people?”
Overall, the first season is pitched as ‘The Shining in space.’ If they get a second season, that will have a completely different theme.