Friday, 4 November 2016

Dark Matter - Season 2

Cast: Melissa O’Neil, Marc Bendavid, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari Jr, and Jodelle Ferland

Creators: Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie

585 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Acorn DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Reviews by Tony Lee & Steven Hampton

Although Metal Hurlant proved a disappointing failure as a sci-fi/ fantasy anthology show, the new space operas on TV are, generally, doing a better job of adventure narratives in off-world scenarios than similarly themed big-scale movies. Perhaps it’s because they are not remakes or sequels? Star Wars was merely a watchable rehash of Jedi-isms, and Star Trek was an ultimately ruinous reboot for a venerable franchise. The new all-action Trek’s mired in super-heroics and dismal comedy (Simon Pegg is particularly awful as Scotty, a parody that’s a gross insult to fond memories of James Doohan), shot with overdone and annoying lens-flare.

Two shows standout and they both benefit from strong female leads. Killjoys is good noir-punk about a team of bounty hunters, while Canadian mystery actioner Dark Matter is all about mercenaries. Based upon a graphic novel, Dark Matter concerns a starship named Raza, where six people wake up from cryo-sleep without any memories. Jodelle Ferland (Tideland, The Tall Man) plays a teen techie dubbed ‘Five’, and ‘blondroid’ (Zoie Palmer, Lost Girl) establishes a crew of seven distinctive and fairly likeable characters. Initially, the plot focuses upon secrets locked in the ship’s cargo hold, and helping miners on a nearby colony planet to resist corporate bullying. But soon enough, the Raza gang are revealed as galactic mercenaries-without-portfolio, now fighting Ferrous Corp storm-troopers, like high frontier anti-heroes in shoot ’em ups with ray-guns versus bullets - alongside even more anachronistic samurai sword-fights.

Dark Matter is 13 episodes of sci-fi that’s too low-budget for building up much genuine futurism. It is shamelessly derivative of Blake’s 7, by way of buccaneering Firefly and Serenity, and influenced, in particular, by Starhunter. It is a space western that rattles along agreeably despite escalating tensions within a starship crew (that are not really a proper team at first). At a space station for trade, One (the first ‘defrosted’) meets his doppelganger, while their unofficial yet optimal leader, Two (Melissa O’Neil), courts a violent meeting with casino gangsters. When the crew discover some facts about their personal histories, it’s no surprise that their past identities are not good news, and so a fresh start (with redemptive aims) looks promising, if they can learn to trust each other.

Hired for a combat salvage job, the crew find a ship haunted by zombies on the loose in a generic borrowing from Event Horizon. Five’s voluntary mind-probe grants access to the group’s memories in a virtuality, opening flashback-floodgates for sadly dull back-story revelations (mediocre SF) and further character origins in subsequent episodes. When the crew finally manage to open Raza’s sealed hold, they find a dying woman, and a sex drone, stored inside. New android Wendy (Ruby Rose, ‘Abigail’ in the next and possibly final Resident Evil movie) turns out to be a timebomb-program spy-bot in characteristic opposition; much like a Lore to blondroid’s Data.

Despite a notable lack of more imaginative tech that SF fans might expect from a galactic-scale civilisation, there are 3D-printed clones used as ‘teleport’ subs. (Not a practice recommended for anxious astronauts - prone to paranoia or ID-related psych problems.) The Raza crew are hired for a heist, and forced to work with another gang, but, of course, their plan fails at first, and then a no-honour-among-thieves plot twist leaves Two playing Die Hard in space. Notable guest stars include Torri Higginson (from Stargate: Atlantis), David Hewlett (Cube, Nothing), and a now-beardy Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: TNG). Overall, this is good entertainment of its un-ambitious type, so I’m glad that it was renewed for a second season. 

Dark Matter: Season Two begins after galactic police have arrested the Raza crew. All of their lost identities are recovered, but can any of them return to their old lives? There is prison riot as a distraction for the eventual breakout, with most of the team escaping in Raza with three other inmates, but our heroes suffer memory problems once again so they choose to resume using numbers instead of names. However, after a gifted fighter, Nyx (Melanie Liburd), joins the gang, she proves to be a valuable tactical asset when the unsuspected conspiracy plots, both political and criminal, continue unfolding around our heroes.

Blondroid gets a program upgrade to enable her first undercover mission and a newfound empathy is more effective (despite some amusing, socially inappropriate comments, and analytical observations) than Data’s emotion-chip ever was in Star Trek: TNG. In a witty aside, the decidedly female robot notes: “The behaviour of this crew is atypical and may not be representative of humanity as a whole.”

Teen techie Five remains about the same, but with green hair and random duffel coats. She’s the strange glue that holds the mixed crew together. Since their mind-wipes put each of them on paths of rediscovery, the feisty youngster sets an example for typically anti-social adults to follow as they reconstruct themselves from blanked identities. Our heroes steal a ‘blink’ drive for instantaneous travel, and experiments with it flip the Raza into a parallel universe. This is always a fun type of story in SF shows, with odd versions of the familiar characters in wholly different relationships.

Fearless leader Two’s illness means a trip to Earth where there’s a space elevator to the medical station where new life-saving nanotech is stored. Of course, the heroes go and nick some of that. A computer virus causes the crew to suffer hallucinations (of people from their past lives) that might prove lethal. Blondroid admits the problem is her fault. The android claims that she can fix it, but cannot guarantee that she will not make more mistakes. A crisis of confidence at every level is resolved humanely, as the crew silently accept the imperfect machine as simply human.

Whether following contingency plans or improvising madly, the Raza crew end up relying upon and increasing their own resources, and, when that includes each other, greater trust is a welcome result for the group’s integrity, as they gather combined strength to confront casual ruthlessness born of their own insecurities. There are clever twists when star cops hunting the Raza crew assume the outlaws are actually their usual old selves, and overlook the novelty and unpredictability that results from clean slates of amnesia.

The main villains, among Leagues, Councils, and elite space gangsters - all closing ranks, or closing in to make a killing - include imperial Japanese with samurai affectations, who are divided into some rebels vying for the colonial throne, and others swearing loyalty to a new emperor. Team efforts to prevent impending galactic war between rival corporate empires draw the scaled-up story-arc to a climactic crisis, one without many possibilities for political neutrality, especially when a suicide bomber threatens the summit meeting in the season finale, humorously titled But First, We Save The Galaxy. Of course, a cliff-hanger is on the cards. Who will survive from that spectacular shot of an exploding space station?

Notable guest stars include Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), with Hewlett, Higginson, and Wheaton all returning.

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