Like many of you, I've been eagerly following a handful of new TV shows via Netflix and SyFy, courtesy of Amazon where I have no qualms about paying for commercial-free TV. I shotgunned the entire season of Sense8, the moody, epic, sweeping science fiction opera spearheaded by J. Michael Strazynski of Babylon 5 fame and the Wachowskis of Matrix fame. I, like thousands of others, was blown away by the breadth and ambition of it, and remained in awe of the creators who can make something on a truly speculative scale.
Then I heard about a new SyFy show called "Dark Matter." Six astronauts, awakened on board an interstellar ship, but with no memory of who they were or why they were there. This show is still getting its legs, but the premise is maintaining its intrigue. The show that surprised me, however, is "Killjoys," another SyFy show. This one has a more developed cast with stronger character personalities. The premise is Intergalactic Bounty Hunters. It's got a kickass heroine, her two sidekicks, and a great potential balance of long-form story in the form of characters With A Past mixed with the warrant-of-the-week spine. The showrunners seem to know what they're doing.
What really made me think about these three shows was how much--and how little--worldbuilding they do. Sense8 is ambitious--behind the scenes, the cast and crew flew all over the world to film, and the scenes take place from Chicago to Nairobi, San Francisco to Seoul, and the places in which the stories happen are just as much a part of the series as the characters and the speculative premise. Dark Matter and Killjoys, on the other hand, are very limited in scope...but no less large in concept.
Granted, on one hand, it's like comparing apples and watermelons--Dark Matter and Killjoys are both short-season summer fillers, Sense8 is a straight-to-Netflix headliner spearheaded by big names familiar with big screens and big budgets. On the other hand, it's an exercise in just how much you can say with so little.
Both Dark Matter and Killjoys have limited sets, Dark Matter moreso than Killjoys. Dark Matter takes place mostly on the interstellar ship's multiple locations, with occasional forays into space stations that all look like the Toronto airport, and population centers that look like municipal water treatment plants. It follows the long and storied tradition of such shows as Star Trek, where the Planet With The Cave wore different Christmas lights to portray different exotic interplanetary locales for the duration of an episode. The universe of Dark Matter includes planets whose entire government is based on feudal Japan, and multi-planetary corporations with their own military fleets, all operating under a vague umbrella of a galactic government.
Killjoys, on the other hand, maintains a less open-ended location. There's a definite boundary to the everyday world of the main characters. Dutch, D'avin, and John operate in an area of space known as "The Quad" - one planet, and three habitable moons (or rather, two habitable moons and one future plotline). In addition to their ship (aptly named "Lucy"), the Killjoys live their story out on the moon of Leith and Westerley's Old Town, occasionally returning to the RAC (the bounty hunting organization under whose authority they work) which is maintained on a huge ship.
The universes of the Killjoys and of Dark Matter have an implied vastness to them...but it is a vastness that the viewer never needs to see. The creative use of lighting, small spaces, backstory, and a handful of panoramic shots of (digital?) matte paintings, are all cleverly utilized to present the illusion of large, diverse, interplanetary spaces...yet at the same time, these spaces have an all-too-familiar analogue to them. Spaceports look like airports. Outside looks like outside, even if your farm equipment operates on fusion instead of bio-diesel.
On the surface, this feels like low-budget, syndicated sci-fi shows making do with what they have. Scratch a little deeper, and this feels like filmmakers who know how to use creative lighting, set design, and editing without an endless budget for computer-generated effects. But dig even deeper--down to the narrative-hacking level, and this is what science fiction is all about.
Science fiction is about exploring the human continuum, even when we are separated by immense measures of time, space, and circumstance. "Dark Matter's" storyline shows us that families--even royal ones--are families. One of the persistent locations in "Killjoys" is a Westerlan bar that--despite its futuristic setting--is still a watering hole. No matter how our fate spins us out into the vast universe going forward, we will still be human, and our settings may change, but our spirits will remain the same.
Athena Grayson started out writing a book about an interplanetary bounty hunter. It turned into twelve episodes of a space opera. You can find all twelve episodes of “Huntress of the Star Empire” collected in convenient bundle form at athenagrayson.com/huntress and even get the first episode free! You can find other narrative hacking at her blog at athenagrayson.com.