A few months ago, Syfy made a push back into the fun space-adventure programming we used to see from the channel. Fridays saw them airing Killjoys and Dark Matter, both of which just got renewed. Both shows had a lot going for them, but do they deserve another season? And how can they improve next year?
Some mild spoilers for the first seasons of Killjoys and Dark Matter ahead.
Killjoys and Dark Matter were both clearly indebted to shows like Stargate and Farscape, both in tone and in the place they occupied in Syfy’s offerings. They aren’t A-TV like Battlestar Galactica was, but more like B-TV: using smaller budgets, and providing a counterweight to the self-seriousness of A-TV shows. Done correctly, B-TV can be fun. A good B-TV show is always more entertaining than a bad A-TV show, which can descend into navel-gazing at the worst possible moment.
In the case of these particular shows, there was a fair amount that worked. The space bounty hunter show Killjoys had a fairly likeable cast, with Dutch in particular being fantastic. And her partner John was also fun, although John’s brother D’avin took a while to get his footing. The show’s worldbuilding was also really well done. The creators did a lot of work developing it, and engineered a good background for the story. And the story itself covered some really interesting topics: Class warfare was the central theme, but there was also some freaky governmental stuff. Mostly, though, Killjoys delivered what you want from a good B-show: lots of action, reliably funny one-liners, and good production values.
Meanwhile, a lot of Dark Matter’s good points are in conception rather than actual execution. The backgrounds of all the show’s amnesiac characters were diverse — with the Android’s growth being the most well established and followed through on. The question of who you are if you have no memories to draw on should have been the show’s driving force. The mix of standalone and series-long plot arcs was generally very good: the spaceship crew visited random places or space stations, but it was always within a larger context. And Dark Matter had some fantastic space visuals.
The problem both of these shows had to overcome was the sense that they were copies of other shows with the serial numbers filed off. And they definitely suffered by the comparison they invited. A lot of the Dark Matter characters, for example, felt like they were lifted directly from Firefly — Three, with his named guns, penchant for violence, and one-liners, was a clearly this show’s Jayne. Six, as the cute girl mechanic who is all about the team and also has some sort of weird psychic power, is a mash-up of River and Kaylee. And, unfortunately, since the show wasn’t Firefly, these versions were much blander.
These two shows present the exact opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to making mistakes. In terms of world building, Killjoys was very engineered — there was a lot of background stuffed in, and at points, some of the episodes were pretty clearly designed to put the characters into a situation, in order to show off some plot point that would come up later. The Red 17 episode when they’re on the derelict spaceship, for example? The entire episode screams, “Okay, this is going to come up later on.”
Dark Matter, on the other hand, never explained anything. It’s a future where there are corporations in charge of huge swaths of space? We think? At least, that’s how it looks in the pilot, when the crew is screwed over by one of the corporations only to be saved by another corporation. Only later, we learn that one of the crewmembers comes from somewhere that has an emperor? And another one was an important businessman from some other kind of power structure? None of the pieces quite fit together, and nothing is ever explained.
At times, Killjoys also felt as though it was wandering off track into areas that didn’t relate to its premise—we have the Killjoys, who are supposed to be intergalactic bounty hunters, but apparently they also dabble in weird genetic engineering and assassin stuff? Which felt as though the writers wanted to write those stories, and just shoehorned them in.
Dark Matter, on the other hand, had so many different backstories that anything and everything was fair game. Which cost the show focus.
And while Killjoys flipped a switch about halfway through the first season—there’s a lot of setup, and then they launch pretty much into mythology episodes—Dark Matter mixed everything up from the beginning, making it harder to keep track of what was important, and what wasn’t.
But where the shows were exactly the same was in the ways that they let down their characters. Tropes aren’t bad. Clichés aren’t even bad. Even the way that these shows telegraph that they’re trying to be Farscape or Stargate or Firefly wouldn’t be bad—if they were able to embrace it and make you care about the characters. But that’s not what happened.
On Killjoys, the brothers were a bit stiff throughout, and when the team breaks apart at the end of the season, there’s not really a whole lot of emotional oomph to it. Same with the betrayal at the end of Dark Matter season one—the show never really built them up as a team, so it wasn’t too upsetting to see one of them turn the rest in. And the romance subplot—especially the out-of-nowhere love triangle—was clearly something that was added because these shows always have them. Even though none of the actors involved had any chemistry together.
At the end of the day, the biggest sin of both Dark Matter and Killjoys isn’t that they’re bad. It’s that they’re only okay. They’re mediocre, occupying the unfortunate middle ground between “ridiculously insane and loving it,” and “quality entertainment.” They either need to wallow in their tropes more openly, or transcend them.
In season two, Killjoys needs to keep building on its momentum. It needs to figure out what the hell Khlyen is and what the whole Red 17 thing is. It would be interesting to see them play a bit more about the class/wealth inequality bits, since they actually did lay down a lot of groundwork for that theme in season one.
Dark Matter, meanwhile, needs to refocus itself away from One and onto the team. The team is actually very strong—the few times we see them working with and not against each other, it’s great. One, however, is by far the least interesting character on the show, but is somehow the character they chose to make the lead. He is the show’s problem with blandness writ large. The show should be about this team, but we kept getting bogged down in everyone’s private crusades. The whole show needs to embrace things more. It almost works with Three. He’s a very predictable cliché, but in a very joyful way, so it’s easy to just enjoy his jokes and guns.
In 2016, Syfy is going to have a lot going on. Killjoys and Dark Matter will be joining the much more serious fare of 12 Monkeys and The Expanse, as well as the more magic-based The Magicians. These shows have a place as the B-show counterparts to the gritty realism and giant mytharcs of these other shows, if they can only find their way.