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Nightflyers writer Jeff Buhler on George RR Martin, space and what’s next for the human race

The classic ‘trapped in space and being killed off one by one’ scenario has been done to death, but Netflix’s new series Nightflyers is looking to put a new spin on it. Based on the novella and short stories by Game Of Thrones’ George RR Martin, Nightflyers is a 10-episode space-set sci-fi series that leans more towards the horror genre.

“When I was a kid, Star Wars was everything in the science fiction world but it wasn’t until I saw Ridley Scott’s Alien that the world of space really came alive for me, and I started to feel really like that might be what would look like to be in space,” explains series developer and writer Jeff Buhler. “Gritty, difficult, hard, and terrifying. The isolation, all that stuff really inspired me and that naturally makes a great backdrop for horror and suspense and tension.”

Nightflyers the novella, first written in 1980 as a 23,000-word short story, has gradually evolved over time, and taken on a number of different forms. Following its publication and success, Martin’s publisher requested he expanded it into a 30,000-word story, which then became a series of short stories in 1985, and a feature film in 1987.

“I was very careful to look at the spirit, core elements and themes that have been at the heart of the Nightflyers story from the very beginning and making sure we were expanding upon those and staying true to those as we developed the series,” says Buhler.

Owing to his commitment to HBO, Martin wasn’t permitted to work on the show in an official capacity, but after writing the script for the pilot Buhler made sure Martin got hold of a copy. Instead of having him board the writing team, Buhler did the next best thing: he developed a relationship with Martin and kept him in the loop, going to him for advice and feedback.

Though the show takes place mostly in space (with a few flashbacks to life on Earth before the mission began), it’s far from a space opera. “A lot of sci-fi shows that have been coming out sort of fit into the loose category of space opera, but I would put us squarely in the horror camp,” Buhler tells us. “I would also say that we have a more conceptual approach to storytelling. There’s a little bit of David Lynch in there and a little bit of David Cronenberg. There’s a little bit of Ridley Scott and of course there’s a bit of Stanley Kubrick across the whole thing, as he’s that great giant on the hill whose shadow is cast across the entire genre. Instead of trying to run away from the huge influences we try to embrace them. I think there’s an element of cinematic fanboy geekdom in there. So people who are fans of horror or sci-fi will recognised lots of Easter eggs and treasures scattered throughout the show, which I think is a slightly different approach to horror straight down the line.”

Buhler reckons the show’s characters are also a little out of the ordinary. “You’re not going to see a lot of heroes or bad guys in this show,” he explains. “We don’t have people who are on one team of the other. Everybody is broken. Everybody is good and bad. There’s a lot of complexity. There’s a lot of people that are doing very frustrating things.”

Like many of us, Buhler loves seeing good people making bad choices when it comes to storytelling. “We make bad decisions all the time and there are ramifications for those, so we see people making mistakes, and following their hearts when they should be following their minds, and following their minds when they should be following their hearts. So there’s a lot of fun character dynamics. We have an incredibly talented cast. When we were casting the show we were looking for characters who were talented but could embody real characters as people. We didn’t want to make television characters. We weren’t looking for a particular aesthetic. We wanted people who felt like they could be from anywhere in the world, and could be grounded and realistic and complex.”

As well as getting complex with the characters, Nightflyers also tackles some perplexing philosophical questions, the kind we all like to spend ours mulling over. Like what’s out there, and why are humans so fascinated by what’s our there, and why are we as a race so keen to try and conquer it?

“I am fascinated by this,” Buhler enthuses. “I think it’s because we lay on our backs and stare at the stars at night. I mean, obviously that’s engaging as a species. We’re stuck on this rock and we’re looking out there. I think it’s very natural for humans to ponder going to other places and other lifeforms, and all those fun questions that you think about when you’re staring at the stars late at night.

He also finds it interesting that in a lot of science fiction shows we see space being put on this pedestal as this sort of moral imperative. “Either technology is going to save the human race, or if we can’t fix our planet then why don’t we just go to some other planet?” he asks. “To me, that feels like an unsustainable approach to a species. I think if we have the power to build these incredible ships and fly around the solar system we should at least have the power and intelligence to fix our home planet first, and earn the right to colonise elsewhere. Some of these questions are what we debate in the show, whether or not colonisation is indeed a good idea, and if we were to make contact with intelligent life or lifeforms what would they think about us? How would they feel? Would they look at us as a friendly species or would they look at us as some form of disease that perhaps kills its host and is looking to spread out beyond?”

Nightflyers is available to stream now on Netflix. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow. 

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