“Dark Matter” – A TV Series Review

DARK MATTER, which airs on Syfy, but can also be seen on Netflix (only two out of its three current seasons, with a fourth to be released in 2017), is a Canadian science fiction series, based on a limited series comic published by Dark Horse, about “Six people [who] wake up on a deserted spaceship. They can’t remember who they are or what they’re doing there. They set off to find answers,” as described in their IMDb entry.

The show starts out like the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls – with a slow start as a bit of a predictable and unoriginal soap opera in space that uses the tired and, frankly lazy, amnesia trope. However, the characters and writing eventually evolve to bring us lots of suspense and excitement as a more dramatic action adventure series with some depth to it.

The first few episodes are the roughest, as one might expect. The writers seem to be so distracted with world-building that they don’t give the characters themselves enough attention so that the seven protagonists come off more like cut-rate Firefly ensemble knock-offs. There are some cool explorations, even if only cursory, of cloning, neural tampering, genetic engineering, robotics and cybernetics/bionics, artificial/virtual intelligence, alternate food sources and other science and technology.

Thankfully, the problem of the world building overshadowing everything else works itself out. As the show continues, the world building settles into the background where it belongs, and the protagonists and their struggles move to the forefront, with the stakes ever rising, which allows the ragtag crew members to come into their own identities.

In spite of its flaws – or perhaps because of them – the show is endearing with its charm even in the first awkward half of its pubescence. And the second half is legitimately engaging with characters that you care about and are interested in learning more about in an interesting universe that’s just different enough to keep us wondering and wanting more.

I’m giving season one an average rating of 4 / 5 (well, technically 3.8 or 3.9). See below for my scoring breakdown.

Special Effects: 5/5

Practical Effects, CGI / Visual Effects

While there aren’t a whole lot of practical effects (other than lights on console panels), the blood squibs and flashbang squibs are used to great effect even if very sparingly. If we’re including fabricated props, the weapons and armor all look good, if not very mundane and utilitarian.

The CGI and visual effects are also well done on the landscapes, spaceships, and weapons fire. Some of the CGI space scenes could be better, but for a television show the production value here is very, very top notch!

Writing: 3/5

Dialogue, Plot, Narrative Arcs

As previously touched on, the dialogue and plot start out slow and very, very ham-fisted, but both get more sophisticated and enjoyable as the series continues. There are some dialogue gems and interested plot twists even in the beginning, though they are few and far between. Although the characters are presented with danger from the very outset of the show, it takes several episodes before they ever actually feel legitimately in danger.

Perhaps it’s a choice of style, but the peculiar and mechanical way that most of the characters speak – and many of them with unusually expanded vocabularies – makes them feel like unoriginal clones of each other.

It’s nice to see sex (“romantic relationships” if you’re a stickler for linguistic accuracy more than you are a fan of alliteration) and science explored in the series. Including sex with science. Or at least sex with an android.

While it’s interesting on one hand that the protagonists assume the names One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Android, these are really names for extras like “Security Guard #3” or prison inmates – especially prison inmates who are thrown into a hole to be forgotten about.

My personal favorite character from the beginning to the very end is Three, played by Anthony Lemke, as he is the most dynamic and likable character in the show – the lovable rogue with the heart of gold. Somehow, the rest of the crew constantly overlooks his virtues and treats him like a selfish thug. Even fictional worlds are full of tough breaks, I guess.

Stunts: 2/5

The stunts are the weakest and most inconsistent part of the show. Some action scenes look good, but too many fall flat.

Often, the scenes that fall flat are the ones relying on leads performing their own stunts. As such, I think even the layman immediately sees the difference between a rapid sit to the floor compared to an actual fall. The second unit director and stunt coordinator must both also take some responsibility as at least once the camera angle was wrong in a featured one-on-one fight, which clearly showed that one performer’s punch obviously missed its mark, but the target reacted as though he’d been hit anyway.

I can’t ignore that some of the nameless thugs and mercs who buy it along the way are capable stunt performers who do a great job, but I also can’t ignore some of the footage that actually made it to screen. It is worth noting that the stunts toward the very end of the season are significantly improved, and I’m personally hoping that the stunt coordinator was given a bigger budget to work with for season 2!

Acting: 3/5

It’s difficult to rate the acting in the first half of the series because the writing is…rough. And a bad script doesn’t leave good actors with much to work with (see: Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace).

Presumably by design, the characters start the show as fairly flat, being that they have no memories of their lives. As they gain experience and learn about their past lives, they wander away from the Firefly caricatures they begin as and grow into sophisticated and interesting characters in their own right.

It should also be noted that Will Wheaton makes an appearance. So…take that as you will.

Sets: 5/5

From the spaceship, Raza, which we spend most of our time on, to medical clinics, bazaars, mining facilities, and so on, every set feels real and well thought out, whether a practical set or a digital one.

This attention to detail really helped keep me immersed in the universe and was certainly no small feat in all phases of production of the show.

World Building: 5/5

We immediately get a good sense of the government, corporate, gang, merchant, and underworld politics and histories. Technology is also thought out – how it works as well as how it impacts the universe that these stories inhabit. There is such a focus on world building in this first season, however, that it very often overshadows everything else.

Science: 3/5

It’s refreshing to watch a sci-fi show that clearly values exploring some of the possible science and technology of the future, including androids, cloning, disease, security measures, communications, and much more. However, these are explored in just enough depth to stoke the fires of imagination in casual science fiction fans.

Sound & Music: 4/5

The importance of clean audio, well-timed and appropriate sound effects, and mood-setting music should never be underestimated. None of the audio or music ever pops out as inconsistent or otherwise off.

While the sounds and music are all used effectively, there is nothing unique or outstanding (to me) about them.

Cinematography: 5/5

The blocking, camera movement, editing, lighting and overall visual storytelling is very effective for the mood and intensity of the story being told.

There’s nothing artsy or avant garde with the visual storytelling here. The show knows itself and its audience, and it delivers its story in a straightforward and appropriate manner.

Well, those are my thoughts on the show. Let me know what your own thoughts are in the comments – if I’ve been too harsh or too easy, or if I’ve overlooked a critical element of the show (in season one only, of course).

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