Dark Matter proves why you should never watch sci-fi on streaming channels

Apple TV’s Dark Matter does rather suck you in

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Joel Edgerton (Jason) and Jennifer Connelly (Daniela) in Apple TV+’s Dark Matter
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Jason Dessen, the hero (and, as you’ll discover shortly, anti-hero) of Apple TV’s latest sci-fi caper Dark Matter, is a physics professor at a second-rate university in Chicago. You can tell he’s not that good at his job because he introduces the concept of Schrödinger’s cat (surely the only interesting bit in the entirety of physics) five minutes before the end of a lecture. “Oh and the cat dies,” he says to the uninterested students as they file hurriedly out of class.

With no time constraint, sci-fi series on streaming channels can keep spinning you along for…

Jason Dessen, the hero (and, as you’ll discover shortly, anti-hero) of Apple TV’s latest sci-fi caper Dark Matter, is a physics professor at a second-rate university in Chicago. You can tell he’s not that good at his job because he introduces the concept of Schrödinger’s cat (surely the only interesting bit in the entirety of physics) five minutes before the end of a lecture. “Oh and the cat dies,” he says to the uninterested students as they file hurriedly out of class.

With no time constraint, sci-fi series on streaming channels can keep spinning you along for all eternity

Still, at least he’s happy. His teenage son might have been genetically engineered to fit the phrase “but he’s a great kid” and his hot wife Daniela is beyond perfect. Want to know how perfect? Well it’s their weekly special quality-time date night — when they get to drink wine and dance smoochily together and embarrass their son — and suddenly Daniela spots some text messages coming through on his phone.

Is she monitoring him for infidelity? Why, no. She’s following her instinctive urge to make her husband’s life even better. The texts are from his best mate Ryan, who has just won a major science prize and wants him to come for a few drinks in the bar down the road to celebrate. “But it’s our date night!” protests Dessen (who is also a perfect spouse). “Go and be with your male friend on this special day. You know you want to,” she says (or similar). So off he goes, much to the incredulous bemusement of all male viewers everywhere.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, a very different Jason — Jason2 — is living a much more successful life. Instead of sacrificing his ambitions for family, he has pursed them ruthlessly and ended up creating a gigantic box, based on the Schrödinger’s cat one, which somehow enables him to enter infinite parallel universes, such as the one inhabited by Jason. So that’s where nasty Jason2 goes, role-swapping with nice Jason in order to gain the two things missing from his otherwise finely honed existence: a cute kid and an amenable wife.

This essentially is the premise of Dark Matter, adapted by Blake Crouch from his own novel, and it does rather suck you in. Have we not all mused, at some time, about the road not taken? What might we do differently if we had the power to re-edit our lives? And would those re-edits be consequence-free or would retroactively ironing out all our old mistakes only end up creating bigger problems elsewhere?

It’s not as easy as you think, as Jason2 quickly discovers when he tries to insert himself into the cozy life of original Jason. He keeps failing, not just because of basic difficulties like not knowing where the coffee is kept, or never having met the old friends coming to dinner, but also because he is fundamentally a different person. In the parallel world where he was driven and super-successful he developed a hardness, rapaciousnes and taste for high living which render him wholly unsuited to being an easy-going family man on a professor’s meagre salary.

The Jekyll and Hyde differences between the two Jasons are nicely captured by Joel Edgerton. Initially, and plausibly, his new, complete-bastard persona is quite alluring for his wife (Jennifer Connolly) because now every night feels like a proper first-date night; but then all that eagerness begins to give her the creeps. It’s like a different version of the transformation of Walter White’s character in Breaking Bad — an obvious influence — as he goes from struggling science teacher to crystal-meth-dealing kingpin.

Unfortunately, this being sci-fi, Dark Matter is unable to stay charming, domestic and self-contained in the manner of road-not-taken films like Sliding Doors or Groundhog Day. Instead, it has to expand ever further outwards into the infinite possibilities offered by quantum theory and the multiverse.

This is the point — I’m about to begin episode five of seven — where you realize: “It’s all starting to get a bit generic, future-shock sci-fi on me. The plot could now go in any direction it pleases, regardless of plausibility. But I can’t escape because I’ve got to know and quite like some of these characters, so I’m going to have to keep watching if only to see whether or not nice Jason manages to get back to his lovely wife and his life of pleasantness before nasty Jason2 completely ruins everything.”

Which reminds me of an old rule that I really must learn to apply more: never watch sci-fi series on streaming channels because, unlike with films, there is no time constraint, so they can afford to keep spinning you along, Lost-style, for all eternity with nary a satisfying denouement.

This article was originally published in The Spectators UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.