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Breaking Down That Enigmatic ‘Nightflyers’ Finale with Showrunner Jeff Buhler


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Wait, what?! What just happened? The Nightflyers finale was quite the enigma. Inspired by the George RR Martin novella of the same name, Syfy’s horror series followed a team of daring scientists on a mission to meet a mysterious alien race known as the Volcryn and possibly save Earth in the process — on a space ship that was quite literally haunted by the evil digital presence of the captain’s mother. At last, after icky flesh-covered probes and telepathic communiques, we finally met the Volcryn in the Season One finale, but if their arrival answered some of the series’ burning questions, it also opened the door to a whole new batch of mysteries.

The finale opens with the Nightflyer in a state of unbridled chaos. The villainous Cynthia has taken over Lommie’s body and recruited her loyal right-hand man Auggie to sabotage the ship before they can make it to the Volcryn. At the same time, as the ship draws nearer to the alien life form and the telepathic energy they emit, the ship’s resident telepath — the L1 Thale — is overwhelmed with power surges and relentless feedback.

Of course, none of this stops the single-minded D’Branin, whose obsession with using the Volcryn’s powers to reunite with his daughter only intensified throughout the season, especially as they drifted into the influence of the Volcryn’s telepathic field (the effects of which were also seen on poor Rowan, whose amplified grief turned him murderous). Finally, D’Branin wises up to Cynthia-Lommie’s nefarious plans, beats her to the escape pod and shuttles out to meet the Volcryn face-to-face — or face-to-astral-tentacles, anyway.

Meanwhile, Mel is confronting some horrible truths of her own. On the heels of learning that Roy’s physical form was a bio-tech hybrid robot, she discovers an even darker truth — his true form is a pathetic, shriveled mutant, trapped in a life-sustaining tube, more hideously controlled by his mother than we ever could have imagined. And Cynthia has one more nasty reveal up her sleeve — Mel, the genetically-engineered superhuman, was created from a splice of Cynthia’s DNA, making her and Eris (aka, her lover for quite some time now,) siblings. Now that is classic George RR Martin.

With those mysteries revealed, the clock is ticking. The Nightflyer is rapidly approaching the Volcryn and the ship is set to overheat at any moment, with Cynthia-Lommie locked away and D’Branin soaring out to meet the Volcryn, Mel, Thale, Rowan and a newly heartbroken Auggie devise a strategy to essentially reboot the Nightflyer, turning off the engines, in a last ditch effort to save the ship. That means it’s going to get sub-zero space cold in there for a minute, so they rally all of the crew into a huddle in attempt to create a heat sink. The last we see of them, they’re wrapped in thermal blankets, huddling together as the lights blink out and the ship floats through space, closer and closer to the Volcryn.

As for D’Branin, his pod soars up to the aliens and he finally gets his wish. D’Branin screams in his pilot seat, but before he can finish, he’s transported. He lands back on Earth, still screaming, in his home, to an alternate reality where his daughter is alive and waiting for him (and, as we hear on the TV, the viral plague is still sweeping earth). Still covered in the blood, sweat and dirt from his adventures on the Nightlfyer, a cover of Radiohead’s ‘How to Disappear Completely’ playing over the action, his daughter runs to him and wraps her arms around him saying, “Daddy your home.” Back in space, his pod his empty, soaring through the Volcryn, nothing left of D’Branin but Skye’s friendship bracelet floating in the air. And then… the credits. That’s it.

Talk about a cliffhanger! Do the people aboard the Nightflyer survive the reboot? Do they go to their own alternate realities when they meet up with the Volcryn? Do they even meet the Volcryn? Has D’Branin’s encounter changed things on his Earth, or is he in a new reality? If you want answers to those questions, you’re going to have to pray Syfy comes through for a second season of the series. However, I had the opportunity to hop on the phone with writer and showrunner Jeff Buhler to chat about the finale and pick his brain a bit in the hopes of making sense of it all. Naturally, Buhler didn’t want to give cut and dry answers to the mysteries he built, but he had a whole lot to say to help bring it all into focus, from why they decided to diverge so much from Martin’s source material, to revealing Eris’ true form, to making sense of the Volcryn, and that ambiguous final shot.

Knowing that you were gonna diverge pretty significantly from the source material, can you talk a little bit about the process of deciding where you wanted to build from Martin’s story and take this in the final episodes?

JEFFREY BUHLER: If you look at the framework of the season, it follows the journey of the source material; but because of the nature of George’s novella, which is essentially a Ten Little Indian story where people are being killed off one by one, and that’s not sustainable in a serialized format, we looked to some of the themes that were in the story and looked for storylines that could be fleshed out in between what George had and what we filmed. And so, for me in particular, there’s always something really fascinating about the convergence of biology and technology, and most of the storyline that feel like new material comes from the same element of that, which I think is in essence in the book, but just not in the literal way in which we fleshed it out. So we just looked for stuff coordinated with the theme. And then of course, in trying to make the show as scary, unpredictable, and exciting as possible, many of those story lines then took on lives of their own, as they tend to do.

I love what you guys did with Eris and putting a new spin on his true forms. I’m curious, what was the design process of coming up with his final form and adding to his story? It’s just so heartbreaking and pathetic and weirdly sweet.

BUHLER: We kind of deepened the mystery in a way. In the book we know the mystery centers around whether or not Royd Eris is a real person. He only appears as a hologram, and we wanted to dispel that notion so that we could add another layer to the reveal of his true physical form. And so we added an interim step, a synthetic body that he then uses. So in the series… we have three presentations of Royd Eris. There’s is his holographic form, and then there’s his physical form, and then we reveal his true physical form.

It was really fun working with David Ajala. He was — I was concerned. Sometimes when you tell an actor that they’re going to be playing someone who may end up not being a positive physical representation, they get very nervous, but David, you could see his eyes lighting up. He was so excited about how he physically portrayed Eris when he was a projection and how he portrayed Eris when he was in his physical form on the ship, and then later we did a lot of motion capture work with him and design work which then our VFX studio to help create the final physical form, which was a lot of work as you can tell.

So let’s dig into some of the mysteries finale specifically a little bit. Tell me about your decision to leave the finale on such a cliffhanger.

BUHLER: Well, it’s funny because I suppose it’s a cliffhanger. It’s also in a sense a return to the beginning. We’ve been dealing with memories and the sort of cyclical story you see open with Agatha and Rowan as they appear at the end of the series, or close to the end of the series, and we end with D’Branin in a moment that mirrors his the beginning of his journey. So we kind of want to wrap things around him in that elliptical way in terms of plot structure. And then you know we were also very cognizant of trying to serialize a story that was designed to exist as a one off. The first thing George asked me when he heard we were developing it was, “Where do you go if everybody’s dead?” I said, “Well, we’re gonna add more characters, but we’re also gonna keep some of our favorite characters, the characters that you created, alive.” And in doing that you sort of necessitate the need to have some form of cliff hanger where people would be compelled to come back and see what’s happening with the characters.

The thing that struck me about the book, that really got me excited about helping the series in the first place, was that you go on this journey and you realize that meeting these aliens is what’s driving us out into the void. There’s the horror and the experience of the show is really the journey itself and all the horrors take place on ship and within the psychology of our characters. Then when you finally get to meeting the Volcryn, this alien race, this species that flies between planetary systems, the story leaves you with just a huge mystery and doesn’t answer a lot of questions, and it makes you just instinctually want more. And so I wanted to lean into that feeling which I got reading the book the first time which was, oh my god, I love that it doesn’t wrap things up with a bow and give you a bunch of answers, but it hands you questions. It makes you want to dig into it more.

We have a lot of ideas about Volcryn. There’s a lot of biology and biochemistry with regard to how the Volcryn appear and interact within our galaxy with other life forms. They have a long history. If you’ve read the novella, you know they’ve been around for a long time and they sort of exist in these [gaps] between civilizations and planetary systems. I thought we did a pretty good job… on sort of bringing that to a visual form. I wanted to leave people with that mystery, that sense of the unknown.

I love that it, much like the novella, does answer some questions, but it also feels like a handshake, an introduction to a bigger world.

BUHLER: Yes. That was important because George, when he wrote stories of a Thousand Worlds Universe, it took place many centuries in the future and we wanted to contemporize the story. We wanted it to be just near future so we could see our own world just over the horizon. And in doing that we had to close the door on the other 999 worlds he had created in this future history called The Thousand Worlds Universe. And I told George, I said, “Look , this story, we’re just sort of resetting the timeline. Those worlds are out there. We haven’t discovered them yet. We haven’t colonized them yet. But that stuff is, we’re seeing the beginnings of that.” And so, what feeling we were going for with the finale was the idea that for the first time humans are just creaking the door open to our galaxy and our universe and getting the first glimpse of what’s really out there.

I’m always fascinated by final frames; opening frames and final frames. So I’m curious, why was that the right shot to lead the story on, the floating friendship bracelet from Skye?

BUHLER: Well, it speaks directly to the existential question that we raise. Karl D’Branin has been pondering whether or not the Volcryn had the ability to manipulate space time and if in doing so, if they have enough power contained in this energy that they have which is the same energy that makes the L1 telepaths powerful; if it’s strong enough to actually open the doorways to other dimensions. That there could be other versions of our world that are out there where things are different. And so, I wanted to come back to the pause and see that D’Branin was physically no longer in there, but that his friendship bracelet was. And it just, again spoke to me of that idea of the mystery which is we know that he’s not just sitting in there having a hallucination. We know that something physically happened to him. But his connection, his journey of bringing the friendship bracelet which Skye gave him to meet the Volcryn has been completed so they can get closure, but then a sense a beginning at the same time and it kind of has that elliptical feeling to it.

It’s meant to spark a conversation about whether or not he’s really experiencing that. Is he really there? Are there many versions of our universe, and all that.

Yeah, about that. [Laughs] I was gonna ask how literally should we take the closing music and the lyrics to that? [Note: The lyrics in the scene are “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.”]

BUHLER: [Laughs] I just remembered the famous Radiohead song ‘How to Disappear Completely’ while Listening to Anna Brunner, who performed that version of it, and she’s just a beautiful singer, and then the lyrics were so hauntingly on point for what we were trying to do that when we laid it to picture we just thought, “My god, we’ve got to do this now.” I don’t like to answers questions like “this is exactly how you should think about the show.” We wanted to think that the thing that is fun about Nightflyers is that it raises questions like that. I leave it to people to discuss. I have feelings. I have my own personal feelings about it and I also think that when we talk about metaphysical phenomenon, and space time, and relativity there becomes a blurred line between what’s the right answer and what’s the wrong answer. Often two things can exist at the same time, but be contradictory. That’s been very common. So I think all theories are probably correct.

I know that in the past you’ve spoken of definitely having stories in your mind for the possibility of future seasons. Is that something you guys are still looking for? Did you end up framing this as a limited series?

BUHLER: No, we definitely have ideas. From the very beginning of pitching this story I said, “Here’s what happens at the very beginning of episode one of season two.” We very specifically pick up our characters where we left them on the ship, but also with the framing of that continued. I think we’re just seeing the beginning of the mystery starting to unfold. We haven’t really answered many questions about what the purpose of the Volcryn are, what their agenda is, do they have an intelligence or conscience, and all those sort of big existential questions about them as a species, a race, and then a lot of information that we presented when we were presenting this version of the first season that would become more relevant going forward.

So you are prepared to answer the open questions.

BUHLER: [Laughs] Within limits, yes but I’m trying to be indirect.

Just to give you a little hint, which I think hopefully doesn’t say too much. There’s a theme in the show where biology and technology are merging and we start to lose track. I think this is sort of where humans are going. We see it in our lives every day where our organic natural existence is starting to blend in with ecological existence and there’s an element of that at play here. There’s also an element and this is presented in the very beginning with Rowan when he says, ” You know, any intelligent race would see humanity for what it is, a disease that kills it’s own.” And I think all of those are being played into what the Volcryn is like and what may happen.

What was the decision making process to leave the Volcryn such a mystery? Not that the novella answers a whole lot about it, but it does tell us a bit about the consciousness of the creature. Why did you decide to leave that open?

BUHLER: We wanted to get the audience. I wanted people to basically leave the show saying, “What is that thing and how does it work?” and for me the thing that really happening from the story is the idea that it’s alive, that it’s not a ship being piloted by a bunch of little green men, but it’s a creature. The size and scope of it was enormous, and overwhelming, and I felt like those concepts alone were enough to land the finale of the first season and still leave us a lot to want to unwrap. We don’t really get to see the Volcryn in the TV series until the very final episode. You get a glimpse of it at the very end of five, but you really don’t get to spend any time with it, and I didn’t want to introduce it with all that mystery attached and then answer bunch of questions about it, so we wanted to move slowly in that regard.
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