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Two New Shows Take Canadian TV to Space

06/22/2015 05:35 EDT | Updated 06/22/2016 05:59 EDT
Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 2: Cast member Hannah John-Kamen of 'Killjoys' participates in a panel during NBCUniversal Summer Press Day on April 2, 2015 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Science fiction fans might want to note two series that recently premiered: Dark Matter and Killjoys. They even air the same night (Fridays) on the same station (Space in Canada, Sy-Fy in the U.S.). And though struggling with limited budgets, they are both set amid distant solar systems while most SF currently on TV tends to be earth-based.

This is also interesting because these are primarily Canadian productions. Previously when Canadian TV series tried something as ambitious as space fantasies they were usually based upon American properties or overseen by American showrunners.

Killjoys is created by Michelle Lovretta, who created the popular fantasy series, The Lost Girl. While Dark Matter comes from creators who oversaw the Canadian-made StarGate TV series.

Dark Matter concerns six people and one android (Zoie Palmer, joining a surprisingly long list of robots on Canadian TV). They wake up on a spaceship -- with no memory of their past lives (a premise that might remind you of an earlier youth-aimed Canadian co-production, Deepwater Black). By the end of the first episode their backgrounds seem less mysterious though questions remain as to who wiped their memories and other puzzles.

Killjoys, meanwhile, concerns a trio of planet hopping bounty hunters (Hannah John-Kamen, Aaron Ashmore and Luke Macfarlane).

At this point, only one episode of Killjoys has aired and two of Dark Matter (comprising a two-part pilot). Making it hard to form any long term prognosis.

There are different ways of assessing a series -- the whole "glass half full/glass half empty" thing. Both series are unapologetically middle brow and unlikely to be creative chalk mark against which subsequent SF series will be measured. But if you're looking for something to scratch your speculative fiction itch during the warm summer weeks -- then where do they stand?

Based solely on those initial episodes, Killjoys seems to have hit the ground more firmly on both feet. It seems a little surer of itself, the pacing a little snappier. Despite Dark Matter having the more obvious "mystery," it's Killjoys that I'd argue posits questions I'm more interested in seeing answered over the next few episodes. Maybe it's the very fact that the mysteries in Killjoys aren't as in-your-face as in Dark Matter that makes them more compelling. They are an added incentive, not what the premise is riding on.

The characters and their relationships seem more prominent, and John-Kamen and the others are engaging enough. And by setting the series amid a system apparently teetering on the edge of civil revolt, the series promises some political intrigue and machinations (The Lost Girl also involved a heroine trying to stay neutral despite warring factions). And though both series clearly have small budgets, Killjoys seems to be trying for a little more atmosphere in terms of lighting. Though unfortunately it's to the point of rendering every location (space ship or planet) the same.

Dark Matter has the more obvious mysteries -- but that can threaten to feel like a crutch. They've put so much emphasis on the questions (What's behind the locked door? What's in the box?) -- they've forgotten to make us care about the consequences. The actors are fine (including familiar faces Roger Cross, Zoie Palmer, Anthony Lemke, and Jodelle Ferland) but maybe delivering only okay performances. What's the distinction, you ask? Actors can only work with what the scripts and the directors give them (including a close up vs. a long shot). At this point I'd argue Cross is delivering the most consistently nuanced peformance but, as I say, it's a solid cast.

And for all the series is clearly setting up long term mysteries -- there was little of that applied to the episodes' plot. The story, involving the heroes deciding whether to aid a besieged colony against invaders, lacked any particularly intriguing mysteries or twists of its own, the guest star characters there to fill up the frame. It felt a bit repetitious and just built to a big gun battle.

When a science fiction series just turns into an excuse for a protracted mass shoot out I tend to reach for my Sudoku.

Opening episodes are really just laying foundations. Still, I'm willing to stick with Killjoys for a few episodes because I want to. Dark Matter I'm willing to stick with it to see if it grows on me.

With Dark Matter it'll be whether things start to gel over the next few episodes. The problem with a cast of seven, most of whom suffer from amnesia, is that unlike in Killjoys, we're still waiting for the relationships to click and focal characters to rise to the top. I had initially assumed a kind of impromptu "family" dynamic, with Two (Melissa O'Neil) and Six (Cross) as the kind of level-headed "parents" with One (Marc Bendavid) and Five (Ferland) the "kids" and Three (Lemke) and Four (Alex Mallari Jr.) the hog riding uncles. But by the second episode it seemed like One was maybe supposed to be more of a lead character.

What's weird is how similar the two series seem (even visually). Both are set in distant galaxies/solar systems where humans seem to be the main life form. Both involve corporations as dominant political players with freelance mercenaries as the wild cards. Both series even had Rob Stewart as a guest star! (Fortunately I like Stewart, so that was okay).

Both series belong to that idiom we can call "future grunge," familiar from a zillion low-budget sci-fi action/horror flicks. A lot of drab grey and green metal corridors and steel mesh, dim lighting, and costumes that involve black leather jackets, cargo pants, and Army Surplus. And a lot of guns -- and I do mean "guns" (SF series used to come up with spiffy phasers and light sabres).

Call me a starry-eyed hippy but I miss the days when SF series were about exploring new worlds, everyone kept their weapons on "stun," and heroes quoted Milton between rounds of 3-D chess.

In recent years sci-fi TV seems to say the future belongs to soldiers, bounty hunters, and sheriffs and the "hero" is whoever has the biggest gun. Even series like Bitten and Orphan Black seem to be defined by who gets tortured this week.

Such series often brag that such nihilism is more realistic and often present themselves as the "anti" Star Trek.

Although, in real life, you know what's the one thing I don't think any astronaut ever brought with him into space?

A gun.

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