My household just finished watching the first season of Dark Matter, which a geek more jaded than me nevertheless described as “the better of SyFy’s two new catwalk sci-fi shows.” I’ll try to avoid spoilers on this one, because you probably won’t be 100% what’s going on until the end of the last episode.
That’s actually not a criticism. In many ways, Dark Matter isn’t exceptionally bold in its storytelling. It’s a bit in the vein of Firefly or Cowboy Bebop in that it concerns the travails of a group of mercenaries flying around in a spaceship being double-crossed by pretty much everyone who hires them. That they begin the show with something of a reputation for leaving a trail of the bodies of those who crossed them in their wake is apparently no deterrent to this strategy among the interplanetary corporations who employ them. The jobs are not, in fact, the point, and the show seems to understand this. Rather, Dark Matter is all about the Big Mystery.
The elevator pitch for this show was probably along the lines of, “Six strangers wake up on a heavily armed spaceship. None of them has any memories of their past, but it soon becomes clear that all of them are infamously violent mercenaries.”
It’s like that tabletop RPG where one person takes the Amnesia Flaw, except this time that player has convinced *everyone* in the party to take the Amnesia Flaw. They don’t know who their enemies are. They don’t know how much they can trust the people who claim to be their allies. There’s also a password-protected vault on the ship that none of them knows how to open, which adds just one more layer of mystery to the show.
They don’t dare let on about what happened to their memories for fear that it will make them even more of a target than they already are. The narrative engine runs on the slow revelation of each character’s backstory, all of which contain more skeletons than the ossuary of Paris’s catacombs. Pretty much every minute that the characters aren’t dealing with a universe of assholes who are all out to screw them, they’re discovering one anothers’ secrets and arguing over which of them is the least terrible person on the ship. Just when you think they’ve finally put that question to rest, another skeleton comes dancing out of someone’s closet and forces you to reassess which is the least of six evils. The thing is, none of them remembers being a complete scumbag, and oftentimes they’re just as horrified by the actions in their past as their crewmates are – so it isn’t as easy to just hate them for their deeds in a past life.
All of these mysteries and revelations serve to distract you from the central question, which is that one of the six people on the ship was responsible for erasing everyone’s memories. It’s not that the show ignores that question. They actually mention it quite a bit, especially when someone else finds out about all the Jedi they killed or whatever. But there’s an awful lot of narrative sleight of hand that did a pretty good job distracting me from it until it was too late. And when the final curtain came up, I was left at once stunned, confused, and absolutely certain that the reveal would be obvious if I watched the season a second time.
Dark Matter isn’t the best show on TV right now, but it was an entertaining way to spend my time, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the second season goes.