Nightflyers’ showrunner explains why George R.R. Martin’s massive worlds are ideal for TV

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Tonight, the Syfy channel will launch its latest big science fiction show: Nightflyers, based on a story from Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. The series poses a big question for viewers: does humanity deserve to be saved?

The story is adapted from a novella originally published in 1980 in the science-fiction magazine Astounding Science Fact and Fiction, long before Martin was a household name. He wrote it to refute a critical statement he read, claiming that science fiction and horror were opposites, and couldn’t be mashed together. “As a lifelong fan of both, that assertion struck me as nonsense, so I set out to prove it wrong by blending the two genres together. Worked out pretty well for me,” he posted on his LiveJournal in 2017.

Nightflyers follows a scientific expedition that intends to intercept a mysterious starship from a race called the volcryn, who are passing through the galactic neighborhood. Nine scientists board a ship, the titular Nightflyer, and speed off to conduct their observations. They encounter some problems — it turns out that hiring a ship on the cheap has some pitfalls — as they discover that the Nightflyer has quirks and malevolent presences that turn a run-of-the-mill scientific expedition into a horrifying experience.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Martin followed his predecessors by developing his own future history, a consistent world he could drop stories into. His first novel, Dying of the Light, was followed by a number of other stories set in this distant future. Syfy’s Nightflyers isn’t the first time this world has appeared on-screen, either: the story was made into a low-budget movie in the 1980s, while another novella, Sandkings, became a two-part Outer Limits episode in the mid-1990s.

Series showrunner Jeff Buhler explains that to bring the show to Syfy, the creative team had to make some changes to the original story. “One of the big changes from the novella that we tackled in making the TV series was to roll back the timeline that existed in the Thousand World universe.” Martin’s story is set centuries far in the future, after humanity has colonized the galaxy. Along the way, humanity made contact with numerous other aliens, and wound up nestled between two hostile alien factions. For the show, Buhler explained that they wanted to go back to the point where humanity first made contact with aliens.

“We’ve seen a lot of first-contact stories, and they usually center on an alien species attacking the Earth for resources, or something along those lines,” Buhler says. “I wanted to tell a sort of twist on that story.” He also wanted to make the narrative more relevant to modern audiences, while using it as a way to inch “the door open on what’s out in our galaxy.”

Image: Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact

That mashup of science-fiction and horror appealed to Buhler, but he also pointed to the story’s protagonists as a draw: “Once you dig into the story, [Martin] has created a whole world with incredible characters.” He had originally developed the story for film, but wound up cutting more and more relevant information with each draft. “There were just too many ideas, too many ideas, too many things that felt like rich possibilities.” Ultimately, he decided the show was more appropriate for television.

Martin’s Nightflyers and other Thousand Worlds stories lend themselves well to the current streaming environment. Viewers, Buhler says, are “beginning to desire stories that have more complexity and less-defined borders. You don’t necessarily have to have a story and then the sequel, and tell everything in a linear fashion. People are becoming much more sophisticated. They like to binge on content.” He notes that Martin’s approach to creating vast, boundary-less worlds is highly appealing to fans.

And he wants to lean into that style with Nightflyers. While the show is set in a near-contemporary time, “by the end of the first season, we will have very clearly embraced the idea that we’re not alone and there’s things we cannot explain or understand as human beings that live with us in this universe. I love the idea that it’s a big world and universe, and we can take our time in getting there.”

Buhler has larger plans for Nightflyers, should it be renewed for a second season. “When I pitched Nightflyers, I pitched a journey that encompassed more than one season. The novella essentially outlines where the first season goes, and leaves us in a place of total mystery.” He says that when he spoke with Martin about the series, his first question was “Where do you go after this?” but that Martin had never imagined the story continuing. At the end of the season, Buhler says, “we have some opportunities to dig a bit deeper into this world.” While the initial episodes focus on the immediate story, “that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have the potential to open up other worlds that exist in the Thousand Worlds universe.”