I’m wondering how Dark Matter impressed me so much that I had to re-watch the whole season right after finishing it. That’s something I never do with any TV show, not even Breaking Bad and Hannibal. I attribute this to the right combination of elements in Dark Matter — engaging characters, deep intrigue, moral philosophy, and ass-kicking action — that atone for its mediocre ones. The dialogue is a bit B-grade, and the scope and vision sometimes underwhelms. But the premise alone is a winner. A group of six people with no memory of themselves and where they came from wake up on a starship. They name themselves “One” through “Six” and try figuring out who they are, and unexpected revelations gradually give way to even more surprises. There’s a satisfying twist in almost every episode. I can’t help think the writers were inspired by some parts of Stephen Donaldson’s Gap Series (especially when the crew barely escapes an exploding planet; see above). Like Donaldson, the writers of Dark Matter excel at suspense, organic cliffhangers, and layers of mystery where what you think is almost inevitably wrong.
Here’s how I rank the first season episodes.
Episodes 10 & 11. By Paul Mullie. 5 stars. This two-parter is a heist with nasty treachery, the season’s clear masterpiece, and the first thing to single out for praise are the cliffhangers. At the end of 10, one of the Raza crew is ejected into space, and 11 ends on a fucking planet blowing up as the ship escapes only scant meters ahead of the exploding debris. But it’s nail-biting all the way through, from the first frame when the Ferrous Corp ships appear and launch a nuclear missile at the Raza. Two’s on-the-spot decision to fly straight into the missile (forcing Ferrous to neutralize it at the last second so its ships won’t get caught in the blast radius), to the appalled outrage of the rest of the crew, is an incredible piece of suspense. It’s worth noting Three’s evolution from most annoying character (in the early episodes) to a surprisingly likable one (starting in episode 7). By the end of this double-bill, I liked him more than One. Between his faith in Five’s capabilities (whom he had previously treated with contempt), and being the first to speak up when Two is threatened, his affection for the crew emerges through an obnoxious persona which is clearly a defense mechanism. Meanwhile, Five is finally accepted by everyone as a full crew member, having fulfilled the most critical role in pulling off the heist. (The way this is engineered is brilliant, as Two must eat her words after ordering Five to stay on board the Raza while the “adults” do dangerous work. It’s because Two overreacts to Wexler’s lecherous advances and cripples him, that Five’s talents are suddenly needed.) Wexler is a thoroughly unpleasant villain, and Five earns her stripes in more ways than one, threatened with having her fingers cut off and also raped, when One refuses to answer Wexler’s questions. And it is this dynamic, as much as the relentless suspense, that sells episodes 10 and 11: the amazing teamwork between the Raza and Wexler’s group, overturned by the foulest treachery once they all get away with the white-hole device. It really makes you feel the terror and outrage over these bastards: their take-over of the Raza feels like a personal home invasion.
Episode 6. By Paul Mullie. 5 stars. With this episode Five became my firm favorite. She enters a matrix-equivalent in order to learn about the crew’s past and who wiped their memories. She finds herself living their pasts, finally settles into One’s idyllic childhood, and becomes psychologically trapped so that she can’t be revived. Six enters the matrix to rescue her, and their encounter in the dream state is my favorite scene of the season. It follows on Six’s revelation of his own past, which he forced to observe and is horrified by the mass-murder he committed as a terrorist. Their moment together stands as the show’s moral center: “Maybe it all ends badly out there in the real world, but in here you can’t change anything; out there we can at least try.” There are tense revelations all throughout, not least the murder of Four’s father, and the fact that Five herself was nothing more than a stowaway on the Raza — and almost jettisoned into space by Three.
Episode 5. By Paul Mullie. 4 ½ stars. When I finished watching Dark Matter, it was clear that episodes 5, 6, 10, and 11 were the gems. So it was hardly surprising to learn they were penned by the same writer, Paul Mullie. He’s in top form whether he’s writing about epic heists and nasty betrayals, emotional dream states, or in this case, virus infected “zombies” on board a drifter. The Raza crew splits up to salvage the ship in a way that allows for maximum suspense and solid character interactions, especially between One and Three. The “zombies” are hideously strong — taking entire clips of ammo to bring down — and when Two is bitten, the argument between Four and Six as to whether or not she should be abandoned is painful to watch, not least because the heartless option may well be the proper one. And Six’s return rescue for One and Three is a fine piece of suspense, as the latter pair become trapped in a section that’s running out of air.
Episode 7. By Robert Cooper. 4 ½ stars. The vault door finally opens, an android who fucks men and cooks gourmet is assembled, and Three actually turns out to have been a pretty decent guy. In place of the bickering sessions between him and One, come reactions we don’t expect: sensitive One jumps into bed with the android, while asshole Three goes out of his way to help a woman dying of an incurable disease. He also ends up being the most instrumental in saving the ship from hurtling into a sun, with some unexpected teamwork with Five. The moments when the crew are gorging themselves on the android’s cooking — especially Six who can’t stop moaning like a pig — are priceless, as are those which show the Raza-android reacting with jealousy to this newcomer. This episode is both dramatically intense and philosophically interesting, as we see the blank-slate cutting the other way for a change (selfish crew member emerging altruistic) and highly self-conscious androids.
Episode 3. By Martin Gero. 4 ½ stars. Misjudged a filler episode, this is actually an effective bottle drama with crisp intrigue. Five’s stumbling on the corpse of the dead boy is a gruesome highlight, suggesting one of the crew may be a child killer. There are high levels of distrust at this early stage: Two reveals that Five has been having dreams that are actually the crews’ memories funneled into her subconscious. One such dream being that one of them sabotaged the stasis pods and deliberately wiped their memories. Suspicion turns on Three, when he refuses to participate in the android’s lie-detecting screening. Even the filler sequence of the android going EVA to repair the ship results in a gun standoff between the crew, as Three and Four oppose the others who insist on risking the crew by rescuing the android. Not to mention that Six almost dies in the rescue attempt. Easily the most underrated episode.
Episodes 1 & 2. By Joseph Mallozzi & Paul Mullie. 4 stars. When six people wake up from stasis and can’t remember a damn thing about themselves, intrigue is a given, and it builds to a perfect cliffhanger that bridges the mining colony plot: they watch a video of their arrest records (except for teenager Five, who wasn’t part of the original crew) in stunned horror, realizing they were sent to the planet not to help the poor miners, but to kill them. Nature vs. nurture dilemmas kick in. They can’t believe they are this bad (killers, pirates, smugglers, and kidnappers, says the footage), aside from perhaps Three who doesn’t seem to care about much beyond immediate gratifications. Ironically, it is he who offers the soundest advice: if they don’t kill the miners as they were hired to do, they will be on Ferrous Corp’s almighty shit-list and on the run for their lives. Which of course is what happens; they go against their apparent nature and dig in with the miners. The battle against invading Ferrous soldiers establishes the crew’s amazing teamwork that will be repeated in episodes 5, 7, 10/11, and 12, especially the heavy demands of trust involved. In this case, Two abandons the crew and takes off in the Raza, but returns after betraying Ferrous and making a deal with a rival corporation. This is a solid double-bill that sets Dark Matter’s tone — mysteries within mysteries, corporate subterfuge, no shortage of surprises, rewarding action.
Episode 12. By Joseph Mallozzi. 4 stars. The penultimate episode is Two’s story, and explains how she was engineered (not born) to be an invincible bad-ass. But in a way it’s the android’s story too. She comes into her own here, risking her mandate by leaving the Raza to do what the crew cannot and rescue Two from imprisonment on the jungle planet. Ultimately it’s about two “super-women” rendered powerless by their Achilles’ heels and overcoming them — the most vulnerable we’ve seen either of them. Five’s revelations on board the Raza are just as dramatic. She learns through her dreams that Two really was a bad-ass, personality-wise, before the memory wipe; she wanted Five expelled off the ship even more strongly than Three, and it was only Four’s swing-vote (with One and Six) that kept Five on board. Then there is the disturbing audio-recording of Two and Four planning the death of another crew member.
Episode 9. By Joseph Mallozzi. 4 stars. Most of this episode takes place on a lawless planet, where Four goes to meet his brother, but is apprehended instead by his former trainer Akita. It’s an excuse to present Four’s backstory with a lot of cool sword-fighting, and ends with one of the most shocking (but grimly satisfying) scenes of the season, when Four, after shaking Akita’s hand and bidding him farewell, whips out his sword and runs it through him on the spot. This is after their long march through the forest, when Four went through all the trouble to dress Akita’s gun wound, and they reflected on the time years ago, when Four saved him from execution by taking the blame for a disastrous military blunder. The scenes on board the Raza are good too, as the team decides to rescue Four for self-serving reasons as much as friendship: it’s good to have a friend who is the rightful heir to an empire. Things get tense between Six and Five too, as he tries keeping his distance from her.
Episode 8. By Trevor Finn. 3 ½ stars. Six has a grim backstory, and this episode charts his revenge attempt against the General who manipulated him into committing mass murder. The sci-fic features almost steal the show: a multi-ringed space station against purplish-red lighting, and the clone-travel pods of Transfer Transit. The latter is one of the most ingenious ideas I’ve seen in sci-fic, and my heart literally skipped a beat when Six was shot dead by the General’s men before we learn that it was only clone-Six. The General turns out to be a clone too, robbing second-clone Six of a sweet revenge. But the best twist comes in the chase after Six, when clone-One and clone-Four step out of their pods. One looks totally different — meaning as he should look, based on his DNA template. He is Derrick Moss, not the Jace Corso his plastic surgery imitates.
Episode 4. By Joseph Mallozzi. 3 ½ stars. In which everyone (except Four) makes a mess of things on the space station. There’s solid entertainment here — One and Three’s constant bitching at each other (even after being captured and tied up back-to-back by the real Jace Corso), Two and Five cheating at the casino, Six’s identity exposed in the doctor’s office — but it all comes at the price of the characters behaving rather stupidly. The episode basically functions as a means to make them desperate. Having lost all their money and contraband, they will now be forced to take jobs from shady people who shouldn’t be trusted — in episodes 5 and 10/11, and 12. The best scene is Two’s bad-ass slaughter of the casino goons, an appalling overreaction that stuns Five and puts a serious question mark over Two’s nature and character.
Episode 13. By Joseph Mallozzi & Paul Mullie. 3 ½ stars. It’s not good when a finale ranks at the bottom. The penultimate episode 12 ended on one of the crew breaking into the vault, stealing the shock-stick, and taking out the android. (Is this the crew member who was slated to be killed by Two and Four before reaching the mining planet?) This traitor is doubtfully the same person who wiped their memories (who now appears to be Five, who wrote some kind of program right before they went into stasis), but the problem with the mystery is the entirely unconvincing focus on One and Three, whose hyper-suspicions of each other have by this point become a too obvious decoy. As early as episode 4, I was convinced that whoever the memory-wiper was, it wasn’t One or Three — One’s phony identity and Three’s selfishness are waved inches in front of us to make us suspect them — and it’s equally obvious that neither is the current traitor. The shocking reveal of Six points to weird developments in the next season. This episode is okay, but a lot more could have been done with it as a finale.