Friday, March 25, 2016

Joseph Mallozzi: On Dark Matter

"Within the sci-fi genre there needs to be a balance.
Stargate was fun, but I don't see a lot of fun sci-fi.
Firefly was fun.
Darker sci-fi is beautiful and great but you look at guardians of the Galaxy--it was sci-fi fun.
Basically, what sets our show apart is that it's fun."
-Joseph Mallozzi, SciFi Now #107, p.44-

Writer/creator Joseph Mallozzi on his quest, along with Paul Mullie, for fun on the series Dark Matter (2015). He's in good company too regarding those ambitions. Dark Matter is clearly in step stylistically with the action adventure approach as aforementioned. And to be clear, when it brings in the comedic it never strives to be Farscape (1999-2003) insane or John Crichton crazy.

Indeed, science fiction fans looking for this style of science fiction may take heart.

For this writer, Dark Matter wasn't quite as much fun as I had hoped, but I'm also not as enamored or taken with science fiction that leans on humor in some of its darker moments. It takes me out of the experience a bit. Even still the series is a bit uneven tonally in spots in writing, performance and production, but only on occasion.

Interestingly this writer finds the female performances to be the strongest on the series. It's hard to deny the absolutely gorgeous Two, a.k.a. Portia Lin, played by former Canadian Idol singer turned actress Melissa O'Neil. Jodelle Ferland as Five, a.k.a. Das, once guest-starred in the episode Harmony for Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009) is another standout. And finally, Zoie Palmer (Lost Girl) as The Android is also one of the most interesting characters on the series learning and discovering her world in a Data-like fashion but still unique and from a feminine perspective. Clearly the writing and handling of the female characters remains the strongest for me on Dark Matter. It will be interesting to see these characters develop.

Despite a few quibbles, and with room to improve, Dark Matter still has its strong moments and I remain committed to strapping in for Season Two aboard the glorious vessel known as the Raza. Fun is fine, but let's hope Dark Matter gets a little more interesting.

For more on Dark Matter Season One check out an overview here.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dark Matter

"We're just a bunch of strangers thrown together by circumstance."

Is there anything really the matter with Dark Matter (2015-)?

Well, if at first you don't succeed (er herm, Stargate Universe), then try, try again! Of course such allusions really shouldn't be compared, but considerable creative crossover exists between these two worlds to be sure. Amanda Tapping. Andy Mikita. Martin Wood. Torri Higginson. David Hewlett. All make appearances and were previously connected to Stargate Universe (2009-2011).

Most importantly, the creators, writers and executive producers behind SyFy's Dark Matter also enjoyed considerable success as writers throughout the entirety of the Stargate franchise. Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie delivered strong stories for Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009) and the ill-fated Stargate Universe despite a glorious two season run.

Taking visual cues and approaching the always influential Ridley Scott Alien-influenced world of grittiness and the darkness of space that surrounded the Nostromo, Mallozzi and Mullie were able to self-adapt their own Dark Horse comic book limited series of the same name, Dark Matter (2012), into a science fiction series that was voted the best new series of the genre in 2015 by SciFiStream. Of course the comic book series was the result of efforts to originally adapt the idea for television. Nevertheless Dark Matter's comic book-like roots are in full evidence. As luck would have it the fruits of their labors, particularly in Episode One and Episode Two, is generally positive as Dark Matter eventually received the green light.

Though my general impression of Dark Matter, Season One tended to wane as the season progressed. Some compounded shortcomings and deficiencies resulted in a series that was generally inferior to the likes of Stargate Universe.

Another good quality comparison would be The Expanse, a series released by SyFy at the end of 2015. What The Expanse offers over and above Dark Matter is a more original premise and approach to science fiction in space whereby Dark Matter tends to mine a more familiar style and familiar territory.

One might think The Expanse with its tangled weave of conspiracy and nefarious corporate and governmental question marks jockeying for power might have borrowed a page from the comic book series. Truth be told the source material for The Expanse, Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse series, a series of books written by James S. A. Corey, the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, was actually published in 2011 predating the Dark Matter comic book series. But the fact of the dark matter is these ideas and conventions (The Galactic Authority, corporations) have been around for a long time forever influencing science fiction and forever being mined. See Firefly (2002) or Babylon 5 (1993-1998) as just two examples. So these ideas are hardly new ore revolutionary. It's not plagiarism either. It's Dark Matter and The Expanse offering new twists on classic ideas concerning corporate machinations. Both are generating their own creations and respective mythologies, but one of the two, The Expanse, is far superior in approach, execution and originality.

Dark Matter on the surface approaches it's science fiction with an almost straightforward, no nonsense mission. Dark Matter is by no means as challenging, complicated or as dense to grasp as The Expanse. It can often get a bit daft even. Dark Matter certainly applies a more bare bones production approach to the look and feel of its show over the stunning detail work of Stargate Universe. Dark Matter also sheds the nuance and quiet space of that series by establishing a more gritty, straight-for-the-jugular energy along with whopping dose of humor.

But Stargate Universe boarded an Ancients vessel, the Destiny, that was filled with a kind of architectural grace and beauty. The aesthetic was stunning in every crack and crevice of that series. The ship, the Raza, established for Dark Matter enjoys much of the intelligent lighting and cinematographic-type touches that are aesthetically pleasing but makes the vessel a more militaristic and industrial-styled mercenary machine with less artistry. Along with the humor the aesthetic differences set Dark Matter apart significantly.

In the early going Mallozzi and Mullie approach the series with a sense of mystery. The pilot, Episode 1, sees a seven member cast asking questions. Who am I? Where am I? What is our purpose? These sub textual elements populate the series and each character's journey throughout. The convention of waking from hyper sleep is always tantalizing to the sci-fi fan. Science fiction films like Pandorum (2009), Alien (1979) and non-genre identity films like Unknown (2006) and Identity (2003) lure the viewer quickly into its respective world with heart palpitating suspense and curiosity. Dark Matter is very effective in adapting the comic for its first two episodes to tell this portion of its story.

Dark Matter doesn't want to waste time on ambiguities preferring to lean toward the obtuse. It's a streamlined thrill ride that sees a cast awake from hyper sleep to questions of identity. All establish themselves as a series of numbers (echoed by the labeling of all thirteen episodes of this season as Episode One through Episode Thirteen), one through six minus the android identified in appearance as female.

Ironically, all our lives we try to express ourselves as individuals or special. You've heard the expression you want to be a name not just a number. Not here. These folks want to erase who they were and happily assign themselves numbers as their names.

Dark Matter, along with those earlier questions tackles the idea of nature versus nurture. Can we change? Can we find redemption? Unfortunately the story material is sometimes dumb-headed. Entries move between the darkness and goofy or funny and sometimes unnaturally so to jarring effect.

Perhaps Mallozzi said it best in SciFi Now #107, "I've always been a big fan of those cable shows where shit happens" (p.43). Perhaps too much shit is happening.

The cast is immediately solid in their respective roles but as the series progresses performances and script dialogue oscillate between very good to unconvincing or unsatisfying. The modulation of quality in this respect tends to be inconsistent. Dark Matter moved from strong to generally satisfying supported by some quality concerns. Sad to say some threads are even uninteresting.

The series, though comprised of individuals, all of whom share a murky past, sees the makeshift group push toward a collective and their numbers reflect that. This is indeed the antithesis of American individualism and exceptionalism (qualities once arguably touted as desirable but often portrayed today as selfish), but also reflective of a spirit of cooperation, a sense of community often missing or absent from the conversation today. Though, to be honest, Dark Matter's subtext isn't aiming to be quite that ambitious.

In general, Dark Matter is an efficient science fiction series in the conventional sense and that's not intended to deride or demean the on screen efforts or writing. But it's smart, fast and effective only some of the time and hardly as challenging as The Expanse.

Despite both settings in space, The Expanse feels like a much larger, more complicated canvas still maintaining intimacy and close quarters. It's world-building at its finest. Dark Matter, as big a field as it has to play, outer space, feels like a more insular, intimate, dirty, sometimes empty-headed little affair. Mallozzi and Mullie have learned a great deal from their work within the Stargate franchise and Dark Matter benefits mightily from their intellect. The two men craft and concoct a sometimes fun sci-fi thriller that is reliable fare to the science fiction fanatic. This is the kind of accessible science fiction Stargate fans loved like a drug. It's instincts are generally good, but there are performance and writing missteps that detract from the experience. It employs conventions but plays with those things to generally good effect ensuring its success as a series going forward. It shakes off any efforts to be too precious preferring a well-paced sci-fi adventure mystery instead of the kind of intense character detailing that requires patience of the kind that alienated Stargate fans with Stargate Universe. This is Mallozzi and Mullie applying every learned trick in the book to a production that looks almost as stellar, likely given its budget, as anything they've done to date.

One of the highlights of the series for this writer was the tech. With Dark Matter we have a mighty space vessel dubbed the Raza. Starship freaks like myself rejoice. The Raza is also fitted with a smaller craft named the Marauder. It just gets better. We have guns. We even have big guns. We have technology. We have vid screens and other technical graphical user interfaces. We have secret compartments. We have unknown attacking vessels with missiles and other weapons capabilities. It's like a box of sci-fi popcorn fun or at least that's the intent.

One frequent event is the need for the Raza to hyper jump utilizing the FTL drive. So we are treated to a phenomenal FTL sequence complete with terrific sound effects, the best since the reimagined Galactica jumps of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009).

We get the Michael Fassbender, David-like android, in the form of a lethal female simply referred to as Android. Why should she have a name at this point?

Production design and lighting is equally good if not as comprehensive or given the care once afforded Stargate Universe.

It's a good first outing for fans of Mallozzi and Mullie 's work, for fans of Stargate and for fans of science fiction. It has its imperfections and minor issues and I think that is accurately reflected to a degree in some measure by the rejection by some critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Dark Matter's first season received a 58% splat just shy of a tomato. That consensus is generally on the money as expectations do fall a bit short.

On the negative side one critic called the series "lightweight" and others "derivative" and "lifeless." One called the show a "dud" while another wrote "nothing stands out as egregiously bad or egregiously good."

Despite its production, performance and scripting flaws Dark Matter is more likely a candidate for the more forgiving genre fans.

Cleverly the title of the series, Dark Matter, refers to a hypothetical substance said to compose five-sixths of all matter in the universe. It's also invisible. The series concept surrounds a group of unknowns whereby the answers to their questions remain mostly invisible. The waking crew One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six have much to discover too with their memories having been erased during hyper sleep.

By the end of Episode One the crew visits a mining colony planet seeking answers to their weaponized vessel the Raza and its respective stockpile of weaponry that lies therein. Learning nothing the group returns to the Raza. Upon arrival One (Jace Corso), Two (Portia Lin), Three (Marcus Boone), Four (Ryo Tetsuda), Five (Das) and Six (Griffin Jones) all discover some information regarding their identities as presented by The Android and recovered data. All of the men and women (except Five) are either killers, murderers, thieves, smugglers or some variation thereof. After initially voting on whether to help the people below, the group comes to the realization that the Raza and the men and women aboard her have clearly been sent with the intention of killing the men and women on the planet.

Dark Matter's greatest challenge is to make this cast likeable. Humor is part of that intention. But this is a fairly despicable bunch. Rooting for them, though it does happen, is not easy. The question is can these men and women be something else? Can they change? Is it their nature that ultimately drives them? And with their memories erased does that give them a blank slate to start over? Can they find redemption? Or is human nature inevitable? These themes are indeed the more interesting aspects of Dark Matter. Still, striking the right tone for the series seems yet to be determined. Will it find the right footing or is this the show?

While this may not be the most gracefully of penned science fiction tales, it is enticing even exhilarating in spots.

It's clear these men and women come from dark backgrounds and must manage to come to terms with dark matters of their own in play emanating from who it is they were or still are. So like pockets of extra-dimensional space, Dark Matter, too, has a number of layers working in its favor.

The question for the amnesiacs is will they ultimately fulfill the identities established by the computer of which they have no recollection and of which they seem generally repulsed by? Or will they reject these potential truths and change? These are great sociological and behavioral questions in play for Dark Matter. These are issue with which we can all identify. Each and every one of us struggles with identity issues in our own lives, but here that struggle is more immediate and urgent. Whether Dark Matter improves in addressing these themes coupled with strong writing will be determined.

Dark Matter continued to explore these six strangers now working as a fragile alliance and even a makeshift family throughout Season One. Issues of trust are often center stage, but this writer found the handling of these ideas to sometimes be ham-fisted, amateurish to the point of annoying. There is even a spirit of adventure that harkens back to childhood nights complete with flashlight exploration. That can be a good or bad thing here. More discerning viewers will find moments that leave you cringing. But whether the series deepens beyond the superficialities and grows to be a more sturdy, interesting affair will be the question. Questions of nature and nurture and trust are fine if they are executed well, but here, so far, it doesn't really matter.

With Dark Matter a leviathan wakes of a different kind, human nature, and what that means going forward and how it's handled is anyone's guess. Some may find Dark Matter rather efficient and worth the ride. Others will not be so forgiving. Dark Matter is at times wild and the Raza is as awesome a vessel as they come. The sight of that thing sometimes made me revel in being a science fiction fan.

Dark Matter unabashedly stays true to its comic book roots because events sometimes get a little comic booky as did Stargate SG-1. If you enjoy that approach Dark Matter may be the perfect vehicle for you. Despite sometimes poor dialogue or lapses in performance quality it is a mostly entertaining sci-fi adventure. Even though it's lacking in production quality in spots (the actual freighter is a military freighter) or intelligent scripting, Dark Matter comes mildly recommended for science fiction fans. There is simply room for improvement.

Following a quick start with two fairly impressive entries this writer was less and less interested in the characters as the season progressed. I wanted to love Dark Matter in this worst way, and thought I would, but alas I found the characters not particularly interesting or likeable. The performances were uneven and mediocre at times with rarely a standout in the bunch. Truly I wanted a reason to care about an accidental terrorist, a would be emperor, a man with a face change and so on. But I wasn't actually certain I cared all that much in the end.

By season's end I found that mystery and fascination had fallen away sometimes supplanted by formula, predictability and even the mundane. And if you get punched in the face like five times I'm not feeling funny in that moment.

The series original potential I found exciting and intriguing dissipated and gave way to questions outside of the series like do I care that these people are together? That's likely not the intended impact.

Perhaps this writer is spoiled by the work Mullie and Mallozzi provided for Stargate Universe. But Dark Matter needs to be consistently better and there are glimpses of excellence throughout.

Again, SciFiStream awarded Dark Matter the top award for genre series in 2015, but voters missed the mark as The Expanse is the vastly superior series. Viewers who favor Dark Matter aren't wrong. It's just a matter of taste. But The Expanse rewards patience even repeat viewing. It demands a smart audience and viewers disinterested in being lazy with its science fiction. And in point of fact The Expanse may well be a lot darker than Dark Matter and tends to approach its world more seriously. The Expanse feels like a more intricate web of conspiracy and intrigue whereby Dark Matter feels a bit meandering as it navigates its mythology. In fairness Dark Matter really isn't quite in the same league as The Expanse in almost every area.

We are indeed fortunate to have a number of fine sci-fi selections in play all of which can improve with time. I'm thrilled there are fans aplenty for Dark Matter and in no way do I mean to be a Killjoy.

The mission-based episodes of Dark Matter have a lean, fierce appeal even if predictable, but it's a formula that will lend Dark Matter some staying power for a time. I'll be curious where Season Two takes us, but I'm not holding my breath for big changes. Meanwhile, The Expanse is a far riskier, more comprehensive affair with which to sink a sci-fi brain.

Dark Matter is clearly the inferior of the two genre offerings of 2015 and The Expanse bests that series in every way. Where The Expanse feeds and fills the mind Dark Matter seems to sometimes drain it. An initially enthusiastic viewing for Dark Matter ultimately results in a conflicted, mild recommendation for this humor-infused space opera. It may just come down to a matter of preference. At this juncture this writer is partial to the more serious fare of The Expanse, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Universe. Dark Matter isn't searching to dock the Raza in a space port of that variety and clearly sci-fi fans are on board. There's certainly more than enough room in space for both.