The first season of Dark Matter stared at me from the top of my Netflix recommendations list for months before I finally decided to hit play on the first episode. I’m not entirely sure why it took me so long to start the show. After all, the rumblings from various corners of the internet were promising. Maybe it was because I had other things to watch. Maybe it was because it aired on the SyFy channel and I have a bias against the channel since seeing Savage Planet when I was younger. Regardless of the reason I finally hit play one night.
And Dark Matter genuinely surprised me. I was expecting something fun, possibly corny. I was expecting something that wouldn’t activate a critical eye.
My expectation was very, very wrong.
After this point spoilers abound!
Let’s get this statement out of the way first: Dark Matter is not a perfect show. It has mistakes and weaker moments and it dabbles in stereotype on occasion when I wish it would go against expectation. But it delivers something fun, something different and something I thoroughly enjoyed. Dark Matter is a show that is trying very hard to be great. The clear effort of everyone involved from actor to writer to director is palpable in every episode.
Such efforts invite a certain level of critical eye. The show wants to be great so I hold it to that standard. Dark Matter makes a promise with the level of narrative, concept and character complexity it’s aiming for and it does not always manage to deliver. Sometimes it’s the writing. The show is not immune to dangerous stereotypes. Sometimes it’s the restraints of the budget showing in the cracks of what might have been.
I’m going to pause real quick because before I can go into any more depth I should set the scene, shouldn’t I? Probably should have done that right at the top but, hey, let’s go with the flow.
The basic concept of Dark Matter is this: six people wake up on a ship with no memories of their pasts, identities or how they came to be on the ship. They name themselves One through Six (in order of their awakening) and quickly fall into complex situations as their pasts catch up to them. Despite their differences, they band together to survive, using a unique collection of ingrained skillsets (and the ship’s android) to earn money and stay alive.
The show’s strongest trait is its pace. I was expecting a drawn out mystery with the finale doing the big reveal of the crew’s true identities. This was not the case at all and provided the first big surprise. I spent the first episode being unsure about the show. The main six characters running around seemed to lean heavily on tropes and stereotypes and the writing left a good bit to be desired. Then the episode ended with the revelation of five of the six’s (apparent) true names and the fact they were a team of mercenaries and the show veered unexpectedly into ambitious territory. By less than halfway through the season almost everyone’s true identity was revealed and their backstory explored in some manner or another. As the season progressed, more details were added and stories were fleshed out. The point of Dark Matter is not the mystery of who these people are but who they want to be. They are aware of their pasts but have none of the associated memories, allowing them to decide for themselves who they want to be all while dealing with the consequences of the lives they forgot (whether in the form of old enemies, painful revelations or former loves).
And that is really damn cool.
And the show isn’t afraid to contrast its large, dramatic moments with smaller ones. The final episode focuses on just the seven main characters as they realize they have a traitor in their midst. It’s just them and the ship as they try to solve the mystery while tensions flare and accusations are thrown about. It’s a boiler of emotions and these characters, who have developed into a family over the course of the past twelve episodes, are clashing and going for each other’s throats. This comes on the heels of the season’s largest conflict with another team of traitorous mercenaries and the fallout of Two’s past coming to light (she’s the one character who gets her history left unexplored until season’s end). Dark Matter doesn’t go big and flashy for its finale. Instead it goes for something complex and truly consequential to the relationships we’ve seen develop throughout the season. It’s a bold move and gives them a truly excellent hook for the second season.
Dark Matter does a whole lot well and right but is not without its issues.
For the first half, One and Three are irritating examples of masculinity. To the show’s credit, both characters are developed beyond that and given arcs that layer them in more interesting ways. For those first few episodes, however, I really struggled with the material involving those two. Four, and his eventually revealed culture, are rife with racial stereotype. The romance between One and Two is forced and feels so much like the pretty white dude obviously has to get the girl. The writing is not always stellar and, more so than anything, the restraints of the budget are frequently obvious (especially whenever CGI is employed).
But despite its weaker points, Dark Matter is a show unafraid to make bold moves, to jumpstart its plot and narrative into fresh territory and put its central characters into new and dangerous situations, allowing them to bounce off each other in exciting ways. It’s first season could have meandered but it clipped along at a fast pace and held out on mysteries for just the right length of time. It might not always hit the mark, but it steadily improved over the course of season one and I hope that trend continues into season two!