At times Dark Matter looks ludicrously cheap. Colonies on alien worlds seem more like a city centre warehouse with a brown post-production filter, while an apparently advanced spaceship looks suspiciously like an industrial interior from modern day. Another plotline takes place in the middle of a forest on another colony world, except it looks identical to your average forest. You could probably get together with some friends and crowdfund a bigger special effects budget than what went into most Dark Matter episodes. That aside, Dark Matter is an absolute blast to watch and one of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen in quite some time.
Let’s backtrack a little. Dark Matter is based on the comic book of the same name, which released from Dark Horse a few years ago. The premise is exactly the same: in the middle of space a group of strangers wake up from stasis aboard a ship, they have no memory of who they are, who anyone else is and what this ship is. Any memories of their identities have been completely erased. The crew then have to work together to figure out why they’re together and what they’re going to do about it.
Naming themselves in the order that they awoke onboard, at first these characters feel awfully cliché. Firstly you have One, a man with a kind heart and an advocate for the crew doing what they can to help others. You also have Three, the grumpy gun lover who often falls out with the others over his questionable morality. Four, the silent warrior archetype who wields a sword like he was born with it. Five, the young tech genius with funky fashion, a character who seems oddly out of place amongst the others. Six, a talented pilot and often the most level headed crew member. And the leader of the group, Two, a woman with a no-nonsense personality but enough loyalty to look out for the rest of the crew. Oh and they also find a powerful but innocent android with little emotional capacity, she actually becomes one of the best sources of humour on the show thanks to her naivety.
The opening episodes are perfectly passable but not anything too special. An intriguing twist at the end of the first episode pumps enough life into the series to give it some early momentum. With the show then fully underway, each episode deals with one particular problem while furthering the ongoing mystery of finding out who these people even are. At this point the show starts to tease out some background details about the cast, who suddenly become a lot more interesting. What we thought we knew is flipped on its head and as the episodes tick by each character seems to have a more intriguing past than was first implied. Some of the many questions are answered with yet more questions, which just make the characters even more engaging as you’re left wondering what the real truth is.
The tenuous alliance between the cast becomes more complex as some grow closer together and others find reasons to distrust each other even more. I was reminded of Battlestar Galactica in that relationships are always shifting, but as the crew are stuck on the same ship they’re often forced to put things aside. Furthermore, there’s always a level of suspicion on our side too as an audience, as Dark Matter likes to remind you that it’s very likely one of the main cast wiped the crew’s memories. Meaning someone on the ship could be gunning for the rest, they might not even know it yet with their memories locked away.
As for the individual episode structures, they follow a Firefly-esque tone of having to deal with mundane issues, such as running low on money, having to improve their reputation and staying one step ahead of the galactic government. This is done by performing various jobs, most of which go wrong in some way or another, of course. Some plots are better than others and you can see the writers straining against the limited budget to squeeze some variety in.
The only set on the show which actually looks good is the Raza, the ship and home base of the team. Multiple episodes take place almost entirely on the ship, playing off of the simmering character drama (and saving money I assume) but these actually end up being some of the best episodes.
The back end of the series is honestly fantastic. Characters become deeper and shed their stereotypical beginnings as revelations about them vary from enlightening to completely bananas. There’s a sense of confidence in these later episodes that the earlier instalments lack, as if everyone now knows what the show is trying to be and is running on the same wavelength. Finally, the show reaches an electrifyingly tense conclusion as it promises, and subsequently delivers, to answer some of the biggest lingering questions.
Tonally Dark Matter mostly plays it straight, relying on drama and action to keep it going. But it knows when to have fun too and will regularly try to lighten things up with some jokes here and there. I never felt as if it’s humour was poorly timed or that any of the more serious moments were overstaying their welcome, altogether it’s a finely balanced plot.
Overall season 1 of Dark Matter is a low-budget uneven affair that I absolutely adored. As long as you don’t take it too seriously there’s a lot of fun to be had with it. I literally laughed aloud at how bad some of the effects were at times, but that never changed the fact that I was unconditionally hooked, and it’s all thanks to the characters. Every actor here puts on a brilliant performance and by the end everyone is an endearing character in one way or another, with a reason to hope they make it out of the season alive.
It’s not a sci-fi masterpiece and it doesn’t do anything particularly daring in its setup, but Dark Matter is a hell of a lot of fun once it gets going and I’m thrilled to hear that it’s coming back for another season. Do check it out if you can, just be sure to ride out those opening couple of episodes to get to the sweet stuff.