Slow Burn Sci-Fi (Night Sky)

I think it’s telling that Night Sky (Amazon) was originally known as Lightyears. You can almost hear the sharp intake of breath in the meeting room when some wag suggested that – for a show that takes so long to get going – the title Lightyears is apposite. But I concur with many reviewers that it is a watchable show because of its two leads, Sissy Spacek (b. 1949) and J K Simmons (b. 1955), who play a married couple dealing with grief and a secret in their back garden.

The fact is, both Lightyears and Night Sky are meaningless titles for a show that could be called any number of other things more appropriate to its subject and themes. The Shed; or Neighbours; or If We Make it Nonlinear People Will Think It’s Clever.

It’s a show that fits in with several other “slow science fiction” dramas that have been on the “quality” streamers in recent years, from the exceptional (Station Eleven) to the meh-ceptional (Invasion, The Open Range). In fact, there is a growing list of these kind of genre shows, which try to put human relationships in the middle of all the sci-fi ideas, with varying degrees of success. This list might include:

  • Raised by Wolves
  • The Terror (and its sequel The Terror: Infamy)
  • Foundation
  • Invasion
  • The Open Range
  • Homecoming
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • Mr Robot
  • Counterpart
  • Station Eleven
  • Devs
  • Travelers

Now, this is very much a mixed bag. One person’s “slow burn” is another person’s “watching someone scrape the fiddly bits of wallpaper off a wall”. I tried an episode of The Open Range, for example, and couldn’t be arsed with it. And why I forced myself to watch all of Invasion, I will never know. I thought The Man in the High Castle was great, but I wouldn’t watch it a second time (ditto Mr Robot); whereas I watched Station Eleven, Travelers and Counterpart twice each. I really rated Raised by Wolves but on its own it wouldn’t be enough to get me to renew a lapsed subscription.

I’ll admit to having impeccable taste.

The problem with all these “genre shows that put the human drama at the centre” is that, well, all the other dramas do that. Science fiction is the genre of ideas. Big ideas, bewildering ideas, new ways of seeing the world, thinking about the past the present and the future, Big Dumb Objects, mystery objects, strange new worlds. It’s about squaring the circle in a time travel plot, or exploring an abandoned alien ship, or encountering The Other at the far reaches of the universe.

That Spacek and Simmons have some kind of a portal under their garden shed is so incidental to this show that it might as well be a Mysterious Door That Never Opens. They go visit this viewing room, look out at the amazing alien vista, and then go back across the garden to their house. When a stranger appears in their viewing room they take him in and the show is concerned only with him and his story for most of its run. Portal schmortal. 

Fine, whatever. Take out the science fiction window dressing and you’ve got a story about a grieving old couple who take in a stranger and get involved in some conflict/shenanigans. And there’s my problem, as a lover of genre shows and science fiction in general. If the sci-fi tropes are incidental to the point of the show, then it’s just a show.

As to the non-linearity of the narrative, we’ve been here before. Does it add anything that we flash back occasionally to when this couple were a younger couple? Or when they were apparently exactly the same age as they are now but it’s supposed to be TWENTY YEARS EARLIER, or whatever? I’m a poor attention-payer, I know, but while I could work out what had happened to the granddaughter’s father, I’ve no idea what became of her mother. Then there’s the side-plot that starts – for no particular reason – in Argentina and doesn’t really add up to much, except… well, there’s this bad guy.

Stop thinking about Spacek and Simmons and you start thinking this show isn’t very good at all. Which is a shame, because they could have done so much more with it. You get a hint of the kind of thing they might have done in the final episode, but by then it’s too late. The litmus test is whether I would seek out a second season, and I’m not sure I would.

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