Dark Matter – Season 1
So I’m channel hopping one day and I stumble upon the familiar face of Roger Cross and I think, “he was good in Continuum, wonder what he’s up to now?” And then I watched the 13 episodes of Dark Matter season 1 faithfully every week from that point on. What follows here then is going to be somewhat of an unashamed ‘why I love Dark Matter’ piece but I’ll also put in my thoughts for how I hope the upcoming season 2 will still raise the bar.
For those who haven’t seen the show, Dark Matter is a Canadian science fiction series with a plot focused on six people who wake up without memories aboard a ship floating in space, and whose situation is then made even worse by the discovery that one of them is a traitor working against the rest. From this starting point begins a nature versus nurture debate that questions whether we are defined by our genetics, whether the characters were born to be good or cruel, or whether people unburdened by their past problems don’t have the same need to react so badly to the universe and take their vengeance upon it. Throughout the season the characters are given the opportunity to treat their amnesia as a freedom to redefine themselves into something they see as better.
The background of the show is a mid-distance future, one far enough to allow the human race to have colonised large regions of space but near enough such that Earth is seemingly still a memory at least – the show has a bit of fun halfway through the season with a comment on one actress’s Australian accent still being on recorded file but not being something generally recognised. In theory, order is kept in this universe by the Galactic Authority but in practice the real decisions seem to be made by giant, uncaring, multi-corporations, giving Dark Matter a second link to Continuum (beyond Roger Cross): In both shows the corporations are very much a force for ill. In the Dark Matter universe the corporations generally pick on, and make life difficult for, the independent colonists eking out desperate livings on remote planets, just hoping not to fall into the view of a corporation that might want to take their stuff.
The first two sections of this review are generally spoiler free. In them I’ll give you my top three reasons to watch the show and then try and balance them with a couple of things about it that hopefully season 2 will improve upon. I’ll talk a little bit about the general setup by the end of Episode One but stay clear of all the really important stuff. After that there will be spoilers. If you stay with me there I’ll much more unashamedly try to convince you to watch the show.
Top three reasons to watch the show
My top three are:
- The excellent, well-thought-out characters that are clearly the strength of the show
- The hidden-traitor plot that really brings alive the same feelings in me as the hidden-traitor board games that are really popular in my social circle at the moment (The Resistance, Shadows Over Camelot and Dark Moon, to name but three)
- The Canadian take on modern geek comedy vs. geek cool.
Dark Matter has a great cold open that both defines the feel of the show you’re about to watch and nicely introduces all the main characters. It shows us the apparent six-person crew of the Raza waking up one at a time from stasis because of a problem with their ship but with no memory of who they are or any knowledge of whether the people around them are there to help or hinder.
The first three characters wake up with the emergency alarms blaring to let them know life support will soon fail. It’s an action sequence and Dark Matter is definitely a sci-fi action show, so fair play there. More importantly though, is the three characters’ different responses to danger: ‘we need to sort this out’, ‘I need to sort this out’ and ‘who’s putting me in danger?’ I say more importantly here because if we’re going to connect with characters who can’t tell us anything about themselves then their instinctual reactions to events are going to be all we’ll have to work with. These reactions then, needed to be as clear and well-defined as they were.
After this danger, the rest of the crew and the ship’s android join the group, settling on a naming convention following the order they woke up – One, Two, Three and so on – and simply “The Android”. Though they subsequently learn a little something about themselves from the ship’s memory banks, without any emotional connection to their pasts through memory, they choose to retain their number names whilst they battle the amnesia and try to come to terms with their situation.
What they then learn about themselves in the following episodes is just as well delivered as the opening sequence. Each time the group faces a new problem the characters always react in a way consistent with the person we’ll later see them become. More than that, having re-watched the show again recently, I can see how little comments and developments throughout have greater meaning when you know what’s coming. Further still, the information learned is weaved into the characters’ situation in such a way that it’s completely believable that six such disparate people have good reasons for remaining with the group, defeating that ‘keeping the party together’ problem.
This strong character definition and its consistency throughout the season really allowed me to trust that the writers had a plan right from the start. This is an important gift to the audience: it allows them the opportunity to try and work out who the traitor is based on what they’re seeing – we aren’t going to be caught out by some coincidence or inconstancy we won’t know to disregard.
The hidden-traitor plot is teased with the amnesia problem from the start but is fully introduced in Episode Three and from there becomes a constant threat hanging over the crew throughout the rest of season. I felt for them each time that threat influenced one of their choices. It was just like playing The Resistance where you know you need to trust someone to get that group win but where you just can’t help but think their reasonable-sounding offer of assistance might just be the promise of a traitor whose subsequent betrayal will lose you the game.
This plot’s climax in the final episode also perfectly links into the amnesia theme, as the traitor’s actions threaten all the work the characters have put in over the previous twelve episodes to become more than they were. Just when they might have been able to push beyond the limits of their past lives the actions of one of them threatens the whole group. Personally, I was watching the last episode wanting to know who the traitor was to see if I had guessed right but also not wanting to know in case it turned out to be one of the characters I hoped would be innocent.
And all of this is presented in – I think – a noticeably Canadian style, whose blend of comedy and cool I’ve found I much prefer to the American. Canadian humour comes across that little bit drier and subtler compared to the American and I warm to it that much faster, if only because it seems to keep shows more reliably away from sitcom tropes and cheap gags. The coolness demanded by the modern geek audience is also less brash and much more stylish with it. Characters don’t suddenly break out of their personalities or motivations for the sake of a joke or pointless pose. If they’re cool it’s because they’ve always been that way or that they have a believably strong skill and a legitimate reason to use it – the fact that they also look great doing it is then a splendid bonus rather than a disappointing default to some formula.
Why you might not get as much out of the show as me
I won’t be the first to say it but the weakest part of the show is the background: There is very little unique or stand out about the universe itself. A second issue for some will be the repetition of themes that they may have seen many times before and gotten a bit fed up with: corporations are evil, androids want to be human, people with amnesia don’t like what they find when they remember. The show is thus relying purely on its foreground plot to carry it.
So far we’ve heard of there being seven major multi-corporations, all out to screw the little guy, all of whose ambitions are just about held in check by the Galactic Authority. We have certainly seen that the corporations are all pretty cut throat, quite happy to kill each other’s soldiers and independent colonists alike but unlike Continuum we have no knowledge of how they came to hold such power. As for the Galactic Authority, we’ve barely seen them.
That said, the setting appears simple enough that you can work out what’s going on using modern day assumptions, so if you’re happy to just assume that corporate power today gets out of control and there’s nothing the UN can do about it then you’re pretty much good to go. It has the advantage that the background is easy to get into but the clear disadvantage that it has nothing particularly strong to invite your interest. If you need the whys and the wherefores then – as Continuum gave you perhaps – you will be disappointed with the world building of season 1. Joseph Mallozzi has promised that world building will be a big thing in season 2 though, so perhaps watch this space.
As for repetition of themes, I can’t help but think of a comment from an interview with Zoie Palmer (playing The Android) in an interview with Seat42f. She says she really wanted to define an android very different to those that have gone before, so she was very conscious of the android theme being well used already. To be fair her I think she does a great job with the personality of The Android – a character that is so disarmingly sweet you’d happily give her the air in your lungs knowing full well she had no need of it. Her problem is she’s been asked to struggle for humanity by the plot, which has her trying to define her place in the crew in mirror image of the struggle for identity of the amnesiac human crew around her. You’d be forgiven then for drawing the parallel to Star Trek’s Data. Despite this The Android is still one of my favourite characters but I can’t deny the parallel is strong.
I think the discovery of self has been done rather well in the show, particularly because the hidden-traitor angle gives the whole thing an extra edge. However, you still need to be interested in watching people learn about their past and struggling to cope with it to enjoy the show. A saving grace is that there isn’t too much by way of angst but again, maybe you think you’ve seen it before?
Characters versus background
I do very much believe that the strength of the foreground carries Dark Matter well enough that any weakness in its world building hasn’t ruined my enjoyment. And with the repetition of themes, surely you can do what’s been done before if you have a new spin on it or you can do it better?
Either way, for now I think we’ve gotten a strong enough feel for how things are through the characters’ own plots. They exist in a dark universe. Though the show’s not gone so far as to kill children – that barrier so strict in American television – we have seen the dead body of Five’s friend TJ. Also, many of the main characters’ histories bring terrorism and murder regularly into the plot. And then, as early as Episode Two two independent miners – supposedly the good guys – betray their comrades, knowing full well the other miners will die at the hands of an invading corporate force. Add to this that Two could turn psychotic killer at any time, Four’s comment early on that he’s prepared to kill the others as soon as it would be beneficial to do so and the very real possibility that Three may well have murdered One’s wife – though I think this will be shown to be a misunderstanding – and you immediately see that the universe is not a very nice place.
And then there are the corporations, who are quite happy to send each other white-hole bombs in the mail (Episode Twelve) and unleash a killer plague in the search for profit-making immortality drugs (Episode Five)… On which point, I do admit that I’ve struggled slightly understanding the tech level of the universe.
We know the limits of the tech are the newly-marketed Transfer Transit, bioengineered life-forms and white-hole bombs. However, we also know that med-bay force fields, nuclear weapons and full memory mapping are reasonably accessible if not commonplace. True the show is not hard science fiction, in which case I should probably just accept that what is shown is true for ‘reasons in the universe’. However, I think internal consistency always raises its head in a distracting way if it’s not satisfied.
If androids are common enough to have such a wide variety of specific uses (ship control, entertainment and science) why aren’t there more of them around? They’re much better in a fight than even the best humans so security teams should always wield one android at least?
If there’s the technology to read and completely map brains, how come top-security science stations can’t scan their inbound supply containers well enough to see there’s a young woman hidden in one (Episode Ten)?
Potentially I just have to stick with ‘because’ as the reason – it’s not hard sci-fi. Despite this though, I’m still going to say that I hope that season 2 develops its tech rules as well as its world building, even if just because it’d help the Dark Matter universe define its uniqueness. Episode Five’s corporate irresponsibility leading to a serious plague was very reminiscent of The Expanse plotline. Happily it’s a small link and the different styles and themes of the two shows keep them well apart but that distance needs preserving I feel.
Those concerns aside though, I’d be happy enough if the show carried on as well as it has with the personal interactions and discoveries that have been so enjoyable so far. There are no weak characters; I’ve enjoyed watching all the characters and the show has done well in making them all unique and interesting. And all the different character pairings and interactions do seem to have a purpose in investigating or playing out the show’s main themes.
In the earlier episodes, Three and Four are both reasonable starting candidates for the traitor, through Three’s easy cruelty and Four’s callous practicality. But then suspicion naturally moves round the rest of the crew, even to The Android, as everyone’s secrets are revealed and Three is shown to have heart and Four to be unswervingly honourable to real friends.
One and Two’s discussions on their respective pasts and whether they will or won’t be defined by them is the foundation of the nature / nurture theme. Both react to it in different ways, rejection bordering on denial and a desire to simply forget. But as each learns more and more of their history they go through the wringer deciding if they’ll try to find a way back to who they were or try to become someone different, both options tinted by the time spent with the rest of the crew.
And then there’s the relationship between Five and Six. So heart-warming to see it grow I don’t dare consider it further here because I know how bad it’s going to be for Five when she learns the truth…
All the way through the season all the combinations of crew pairings have been used to explore the various angles of both the nature vs. nurture argument and threats of the hidden traitor. And constantly throughout there is a consistency with who we discover the characters become by the end of the season. As early as Episode Two, One and Six shake hands after the fight with Ferrous Corp whilst Three and Four just offer at best a nod. You really come to trust the writers and actors of a show when you feel you can see the effort they’ve put into every character interaction and connection.
Comedy, coolness and theme
Two big problems for me with many shows at the moment is the need to prove how cool their characters are and the need to cram in the jokes. It’s like there’s a quota for both in the Great Formula That Must Be Obeyed that means coolness and jokes have to be crowbarred in wherever and whenever they can, often needing a compromise to a character’s normal reactions to make it all fit. It pleases me greatly that Dark Matter has never fallen into this trap.
Certainly I’m biased towards the Canadian sense of humour. I love a more deadpan delivery – Due South is and forever will be one of my favourite shows. Perhaps being British naturally pushes me this way, who knows. Either way, I don’t think that anyone could argue that even the subtlest additions and considerations made throughout the first season of Dark Matter really make a difference.
Some of these are really subtle. Check out Episode One, when the crew realise that they’ve just agreed to vote on whether Five gets to vote – there are little bits of musical emphasis to highlight people’s movements at some of the punchline points. Others are just great comic timing and delivery from the actors. The Android’s “so do either of you possess offspring” in Episode Two and her offering to show Two the countermeasures in Episode One are perfectly delivered. And in all cases, they all hit that little bit harder from being that little bit less brash.
Not that we don’t get straight jokes from the show – and ones tied in to characters getting their moments of cool. For example, I loved Episode Eleven’s ‘Men of the Raza’ speech. It’s done to play off Two kicking some serious backside and Five opening the cargo door whilst the men are all trapped and helpless. In another show it would have been a cheap pretend-feminist gag. In Dark Matter no-one’s character is detracted from to get to the joke. No-one has to act out of the ordinary to force the circumstance. Two is already established as a capable fighter. Five is already established as more than capable with electronic locks. And the men are all borderline hypoxic, almost sharing a drunken experience – there’s no reason they shouldn’t all buddy-movie up in an over-the-top way under lack of oxygen.
In all cases the show’s humour is clever and it doesn’t compromise itself or its characters. Even better, Dark Matter also knows when not to go for the gag. One of my favourite scenes in the whole season comes in Episode Nine, when Six talks to an air vent, knowing Five is hiding within. He offers a heartfelt apology for his earlier actions to another character not visible to the audience. The cheap gag would have been to have the vent behind the panel empty and Six having confessed to thin air. But Five is in the vent and the characters do interact.
This dodge of an old sitcom trope is always valuable to me. It makes sure that what we see on screen is meaningful and shows that the existing mysteries in the plot are strong enough that they don’t need to be artificially bolstered by characters not sharing information.
Open questions for season 2
The biggest question for season 2 for me is what they’ll replace the hidden traitor theme with. Given the show’s reliance on the strength of its foreground they’ll definitely need to replace this theme with something really strong. Even if they successfully institute a really interesting, developed and unique background it won’t fill the gap left by the quality that pervaded every episode of the first season.
Saying that, the nature vs. nurture debate still has a lot more mileage on it, so maybe this will expand naturally into the gap. I really enjoyed Episode Thirteen because of the stark reality that was the destruction of all the effort the crew had put into building themselves into a single, trusting unit. Presumably there’ll be a lot of work building that trust back up again and that will require the characters’ time together on the Raza to be more important to them than the lessons they learned about themselves remembering their previous lives.
The more obvious open questions are then also:
- What is Five’s keycard that’s supposed to be part of a system to access extradimensional space?
- Who is the man that seems to be after Two’s body, presumably for a memory transplant?
And my other open questions are:
- Why did Six do what he did in Episode Thirteen?
- Was it a plan he set in motion before losing his memory that he remembered too late to stop?
- If it wasn’t then why did he betray the crew? In episodes Twelve and Thirteen he seems to have started fearing that the crew were reverting to their old selves again, so was he converted back to an old belief?
- Why did he – presumably? – inject himself after taking out The Android and Four? I hope it wasn’t just for the benefit of shifting audience suspicion, as the show handled that so much better throughout the earlier episodes – and being unconscious hardly keeps Five safe as he promised as he would?
- Were Two, Three and Four talking about killing Six on that microphone or had they discovered that One wasn’t really Jace Corso?
- In Episode Three the crew say that The Android is different to other androids and that’s clearly true by what we’ve been shown – are we going to see this really develop?
- Who really killed One’s – or rather Derrick Moss’s – wife?
- Five’s ability to connect into people’s dreams and her ability to program that she was unaware of: is she going to be a super-powered individual? I’d prefer to avoid a trope but you never know…
- How did the Procyon Insurrection’s general know to be a clone when Six attacked? Is he just that paranoid? Is the insurrection still going strong elsewhere and does Six still have a plot connection to it?
- …And two bonus questions:
- Does Jace Corso really have a secret moon stash?
- Are the green crisps really going to be meaningful to Three?
Somehow it seems strange that Dark Matter had to prove itself by being a comic book before it was taken up by a TV company. Still, whatever it took I’m glad, as it was one of my favourite shows of last year and I’m really looking forward to season 2.
I do wonder what the show will replace the hidden traitor theme with. But then, we still don’t really know why Six did what he did, so presumably that plot could a big thread?
We know that there’ll be two new main characters in season 2. I do hope they fit in without recreating the old Gotham problem: Will there be too many main characters for each to get enough screen time, diluting the strength of the foreground plot that is the show’s main strength? Presumably the new characters don’t have any memory problems too, so what will that mean for the search for identity theme? Perhaps the new guys will be lost souls in some fashion?
I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what Joseph Mallozzi’s world building promise comes to. I haven’t seen an immediate link between the production or writing teams of Continuum and Dark Matter, so now I’m wondering if maybe there’s something in the Canadian psyche at the moment about the evils of corporations that can’t be forgotten after the 2008 financial crash? Will the writers build on this? I see no reason not to. The potential of corporations left to their own devices to do damage goes back at least as far as the East India Company and the like. It’s not just a modern problem; it’s relevant throughout all history.
Whatever’s coming though, I’ve seen the strength and intelligence of the writing and acting so far and I’ve come to trust in both.