Dark Matter - Season 1
“The diversity of Dark Matter appears strong, but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll quickly find retro underpinnings that keep this show from being truly progressive.”
Title: Dark Matter
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Joseph Mallozzi 👨🏼🇨🇦 and Paul Mullie 👨🏼🇨🇦
Writers of Season 1: Joseph Mallozzi 👨🏼🇨🇦 (6 eps), Paul Mullie 👨🏼🇨🇦 (6 eps), Martin Gero 👨🏼🇨🇭🇨🇦 (1 ep), Robert C. Cooper 👨🏼🇨🇦 (1 ep), and Trevor Finn 👨🏼🇨🇦 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
If you hop onto Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes to look up Dark Matter, you'll notice one thing right off the bat: the show's a fan favorite. The disparity between critic and audience reviews allude to this, and comment threads confirm it. Fans of the show brush aside the plodding pace, cookie-cutter visuals, and derivative storylines, pointing out instead interesting characters and a slow build that pays off in spades.
While I normally love a fan favorite—I was big on Supernatural in its heyday, and I enjoy DC’s Legends of Tomorrow unironically—I’m going to have to side with the traditionalists on this one. I couldn’t get behind this Canadian SyFy space drama, which was a chore to watch even when punctuated with solid, if unoriginal, action sequences. And while I did feel glimmers of true interest now and then, particularly when the show delves into its whodunit mystery, the eventual enthrallment promised by fans never arrived for me.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The women of Dark Matter are strong...at first blush. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll quickly find retro underpinnings that keep this show from being truly progressive.
Don’t get me wrong, the lead women—Two, The Android, and Five, played by Melissa O’Neil, Zoie Palmer, and Jodelle Ferland—are genuinely great. Making up almost half the recurring crewmembers, they are about as complex as you get on this show. I love that Two is the best fighter, and the fact of her easily assuming the leadership role from the outset—and as a woman of color, to boot—definitely gives the show some feminist props. The Android’s gender swap from male in the source comics to female on the show is a welcome decision, as is Five’s inclusion as a teenage girl who displays strength through empathy and intellect. And while female relationships are secondary to overall team dynamics or romances with men, I do love the mentorship that occurs between Two and the younger Five.
But here’s the catch: No amount of strong women kicking the asses of men can dispel the ever-present male gaze that infuses this show. It’s hardly surprising, when you consider its all-male writing staff. Biases reveal themselves when the “badass” women, like Two and The Android, don sexualized clothes such as stiletto high heels, belly-skimming crop tops, and skin-tight unitards, while the men get away with utilitarian baggy pants, earth tone t-shirts, and hip-length coats. Sure, you get an occasional scene with a shirtless One (Marc Bendavid) or Four (Alex Mallari Jr.), but the difference is in the camera—the lighting is drab and their bodies are just there, framed perfunctorily. The burden of fan service, which refers to creative decisions made solely to please its core fans, resides completely on the shoulders of women in Dark Matter.
Furthermore, this male gaze reasserts itself during heavy-handed tropes which rear their ugly head at various points throughout the season.
Season 1, Episode 7 is a prime example of such missteps. The crew discovers a second android stowed away on the spaceship, and naturally, it’s the "entertainment model". Wendy the Android, played by Ruby Rose, speaks with a sexy Australian accent and is programmed to cook in a frilly apron, play card games, and have sex. It’s iffy enough when One partakes in her sexual programming, but when the episode attempts to subvert its own misogyny with a twist ending, the writers reveal their fundamental lack of understanding. Wendy the Android turns on the crew, crushing the balls of Three (Anthony Lemke) so that he doubles over to groan, “I thought you were designed to serve, not kill.” Wendy responds, “I find your view on female androids antiquated and offensive.” With this final exchange, I think the audience is supposed to find the line clever enough to absolve an entire episode’s worth of onscreen misogyny.
Thus, the feminism on Dark Matter is surface deep. It’s too bad because the characters are there. But the male writers never form consistently complex women who haven’t been run through the rigorous machine of the male gaze.
Similar to how the writers approach gender, Dark Matter has the numbers of racial diversity down pretty well. There are three crewmembers of color on a team of seven: Portia Lin (aka “Two”), Ryo Tetsuda (aka “Four”), and Griffin Jones (aka “Six” who is played by Roger Cross).
Here, too, the writers get some things right. Two’s ethnicity is refreshingly never commented upon by the show. While I do have broader qualms of biracial actors almost always assuming their “ethnic” sides onscreen—Two’s character of Portia Lin sounds overtly Chinese, but her actor is half Irish with the last name O’Neil—that exploration of nuance among multiracial actors and the ethnic characters they portray can be shelved for another piece altogether.
Next up, Six is pretty great and his blackness is a non-event. This also comes with a caveat: I don’t appreciate that the only two men of color are desexualized in the show. Compare with the two white men who timeshare Two’s bedroom and who also pursue separate romantic arcs with other women (and androids). But luckily, nothing about Six falls into stereotype. His backstory is complex, and I love the platonic friendship he has with the scrappy, pixie-like Five.
I only wish the same could be said for Four. Here, Dark Matter suddenly champions stereotype with astonishing aplomb. Four is a katana-wielding fighter whose backstory reveals him to be of Japanese royalty. But for starters, I was initially confused about the Japanese aspect because Four’s actor, Alex Mallari Jr., is Filipino and he looks Filipino. And while I am fine on principle with switching ethnicities from actor to character, I still draw the line when Four’s entire identity is based on being East Asian; Japanese royalty, at that. I guess...all Asians look the same to the casting director? Or if they really couldn’t scrounge up an East Asian actor, couldn’t they have toned down the Orientalism of Four’s character? His katana is practically surgically attached to his hand:
Beyond optics, Four is riddled with problematic scenes. His backstory is set in what appears to be feudal Japan but is fought with guns, which begs the question: why are the actors wearing wooden samurai armor except for the exoticism? And in Season 1, Episode 11, Dark Matter indulges in one of the most pervasive stereotypes that Asians continue to suffer through: that they have blank, mask-like faces. During a scene in an enclosed room, where the male crewmembers are in danger of slowly suffocating, Three finds himself utterly frustrated with Four’s Zen-like, meditative calmness in the face of imminent death. To placate Three, Six leans over and says, “[Four] feels things, same as you or me. He just doesn’t show it.”
Casual usage of this damaging trope is the precisely the reason why #ExpressiveAsians went viral just a few months ago. As Isha Aran writes for Splinter, this stereotype “suggests that by not having white facial features, Asians are inherently and physically incapable of [emoting], which is incredibly dehumanizing.”
The English-Canadian actor Zoie Palmer, who plays The Android, came out as lesbian in 2014 and commands a strong fan following. Her inclusion in a major role is great; that being said, no LGBTQ scenes actually occur in the first season.
As the self-professed fangirl Reppy wrote on her blog between Seasons 2 and 3, “Does the GAY happen? No… not really. I feel gay vibes and I ship Two with the Android but it’s mostly in my mind...Will anything ever happen? We still have hope.”
While I can’t vouch for the later seasons—and their content is not scored in this review anyway, which only covers Season 1—some poking around the Internet reveals that the show doesn’t improve on the LGBTQ front. In fact, if this episode recap from Season 3 is anything to go by, Dark Matter actually takes the show into some serious queerbaiting, the common practice of teasing LGBTQ fans with sexual tension between same-sex characters but never actually delivering the goods. In the Season 3 premiere, a kiss almost occurs between Two and Nyx (Melanie Liburd), but the camera leaves at the last moment. And for extra narrative “safety”, the scene is posited as a hallucination so there was never really a danger of depicting Two as canonically LGBTQ.
The general consensus for the series overall seems to be that while the cast and futuristic setting of Dark Matter lend itself well to LGBTQ storylines, especially considering Zoie Palmer’s cachet with gay and bisexual women, writers squander the opportunity.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.63/5
On the surface, Dark Matter looks like it delivers strong, complex women and people of color. But the more you watch, the more you realize that the show’s concept of “diversity” is incredibly dated. You don’t have to write “badass” women for them to be strong. And you certainly don’t need to include an East Asian character if you’re just going to pile stereotypes upon him.
I hope that fans of Dark Matter have enjoyed the show’s run, which ended its third and final season earlier this year. And I hope that they get the kind of conclusion they’re asking for on social media, the way Sense8 fans clamored for (and will receive, in the form of a 2-hour series finale). But even more, I hope fans of Dark Matter get a space opera that inhabits the kind of inclusiveness we all deserve. Science fiction is notoriously bad on that front, and it's high time the genre catches up to its modern audiences.