Hanging Onto the Thin Skin of Space: Why 'Dark Matter' Matters

Four (Alex Mallari, Jr) wakes up with no memory and surrounded by strangers (photo by SyFy/Steve Wilkie).

Dark Matter eschews the clichés of lazy sci-fi, so why isn't it more popular?

Dark Matter

Airtime: Fridays, 9pm
Cast: Melissa O’Neil, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari
Network: SyFy

Hard science fiction, according to the MIT Review, are those works "grounded in the curling edge of science and technology", including classics such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, I, Robot, The Diamond Age, and Cyteen. Much of contemporary science fiction on television, however, leans on the more fantastic and speculative elements: the rouge molecules of The Expanse, the strangely alternative universes of Twin Peaks, American Gods, and Stranger Things, and the tele-pathology of Legion.

Notable exceptions include the CW's The 100 and what really interests me: SyFy/Space Channel's Dark Matter.

A Dark Matter

Dark Matter, like many genre shows, hangs from ropes crafted of contracts obligations and good intentions amid a sea of just plain too much content. Like many genre shows, Dark Matter must thrust and parry in order to find an audience and survive another season. According to a tweet from the show's creators, it seems the ratings noose is tightening around the metaphorical neck of the show once again.

I find this exceedingly unfortunate for Dark Matter; it's a series that shouldn't be lost in SyFy's sci-fi backwater. Every bit as good as any science fiction show on television, Dark Matter holds a pretty tight line on hard science fiction. There are no aliens, although alternate universe doppelgängers do show up as a consequence of their other technology stretch: the blink drive. For the most part, Dark Matter embraces a space-based future of corporate intrigue, and a future that asserts plausible extrapolations of current technology and logical extensions to contemporary social structures.

Most science fiction ends up lazily playing against external or internal tropes; they may entertain, but would not, like good hard science fiction, inspire children to become scientists. Some of these lazy elements include aliens of the week; time travel; faster-than-light travel; alien pathogens that either dominate, kill, or transform humans; and various soap opera elements like space sex, capture and escape, and plain old robbery.

Dark Matter recognizes that the most likely future for humans will be some proximity colonization that isn't spurred by an alien invasion, threat, or inspiration. Instead, Dark Matter relies on traditional human motivations like greed, desire for adventure, and wanderlust. It houses a future of corporations at war with weapons we can relate to. The show opens up our most existential of human threats and drives their faster-than-light ships right through it: the future will be a lot like today, but in space with space-based weapons and a really unforgiving environment around us.

Beyond Dark Matter

Another SyFy property, The Expanse, works nearly as well as Dark Matter with its immediate solar system narrative, but in my opinion, it jumps the sci-fi shark with its extra-solar proto-molecule that significantly alters humans. The space sequences may be pretty scientifically spot on, but the proto-molecule, which sits at the core of the series, inspires plots that push beyond the tight struggle between Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt (The Belters). The inclusion of the proto-molecule creates a focal point for conflict, given its purported status as a weapon. The issues of humans in space and the politics involved in maintaining a cohesive trading society at that scale should prove more than enough grist for writers. Instead, the proto-molecule distracts rather than enhances the hard science of an otherwise excellent show.

Similarly, Kill Joys turns the same trick with a different substance. Rather than proto-molecule, they prop up the show with intrigue fueled by the biologically enhanced Hullen taking over the security force known as the RAC. The general backdrop of future police officers taking a weekly, or even season-long, bounties would be good enough without mystical management fanaticals trying to take over the universe. At least when Star Trek: The Next Generation went down this wobbly road, they confined it to a single episode ("Conspiracy"), which made the problem and the resolution even less plausible; thankfully, after Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Pickard (Patrick Stewart) kills off half of Star Fleet Command, the series kind of winked and didn't look back.

By contrast, a film like Arrival offers a truly intriguing alien encounter, in which the alien offered more of a discussion point highlighting the narrowness of human thought and existence; a cinematic prompt for a philosophical discussion.

Lazy Sci-Fi

Of course, lazy sci-fi is nothing new. For years, Gene Roddenberry told stories about his fights -- some of which he lost -- to keep Star Trek from becoming a series about a monster of the week in response to rival shows Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. One element that keeps sci-fi from becoming lazy is recognizing that aliens aren’t the enemy. They can play complicated and meaningful roles, as they often did in Star Trek Voyager, which seldom offered a lazy episode.

In contrast, lazy science fiction plays off of some implausible event, be it a monster, a wormhole, a virus, or some other external entity, to create the context that places humans into extraordinary circumstances. Even Star Trek was guilty of this; its transporters fit well into the definition of lazy sci-fi. People might be trying to make them a reality, but they’re both technologically (and philosophically) nearly impossible. Further, the real motivation for the transporters wasn't science; it was to save the cost of launching a shuttle every episode.

The use of CGI negates that; current technology makes the cost negligible in real terms to the days of filming models. Yet that's not what makes Dark Matter special; it's that the concept of people in space is pretty extraordinary by itself; not unlike the The Martian, with Matt Damon's isolated performance creating plenty of tension in a film and a book where the main character, a human, was the only alien.

For Dark Matter, the concept of humans working and living in space creates enough context to holds its amnesia/self-discovery premise. Kick-ass characters, blasters, space battles, sword fights, poison; all traditional, all relatable. The thrills come from real humans placed in the jeopardy of space, from human politics and the loss and rediscovery of memory.

Dark Matter does include an android with human aspirations that travels much the same philosophical ground covered in plots involving Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data (Brent Spiner). An android with a human-simulation mode seems like something that could happen in this timeframe, and those laws forbid the android from accepting the mod makes for an even more realistic sidebar. The android character creates ample acting opportunities for Zoie Palmer, as did Data for Spiner. Androids may be a stretch, but they're much more likely than transporters or faster-than-light drives.

Keeping Sci-Fi Hard

Hard science fiction needn’t be humorless or even serious, just plausible. Star Trek, of course, offered up some pretty fantastic technology that's probably never going to come to fruition, but it also offer up much in the way of a near-utopian future, at least for those on Earth (until the self-reflective, analytical culture of the '70s made it to television in the '80s and '90s). The original Star Trek, however, often failed to include counter-punches its utopian ideal. Dark Matter, including the clandestine android population, offers nothing but counter punch. If Dark Matter took place in The Expanse universe the combined show would embrace the best of near-future science fiction could build: realistic space ships that just mostly roam between the inner planets; the need for mining and collaboration to survive; and various human factions not all getting along.

Some will argue that Dark Matter isn't hard science fiction, that the series doesn't dazzle with ideas that'll indeed inspire the next generation to become spacefarers, but as much of the technology of early Star Trek finds its way into contemporary life, it becomes increasingly difficult to offer up technology that beats your 70-inch surround sound widescreen with streaming Wi-fi content all controlled by your watch.

The real hardness of Dark Matter comes in ignoring the technology and just concentrating on people working with the technology. The show creates plausible interactions between technology and humans, and these various forms of technology create the backdrop of action and narrative. The introduction of time travel, or the organic compounds that create Killjoy's Hullen and The Expanse's proto-molecule introduce unnecessary complications to lives that would already be too complicated.

Regardless of our resilience as a species, for humans in space, such elements would likely be too much to deal with. Instead, Dark Matter mostly finds its conflicts among people, about people and things, in a harsh environment. It's a more realistic view of humans in space: barely holding on to life against an infinitely cold black sky. That reality is pretty hard to swallow given all of the speculation that fills science fiction. Just us, expanding into space and bringing our personal and cultural baggage with us, may be the dark matter most would like to avoid.

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