'Nightflyers': Karl D'Branin is ruled by circumstance, waging a constant inner war between his potential and obsession
D'Branin has an ulterior motive behind venturing out into space. It's clear he's not doing it out of a need to help humanity like a brilliant astrophysicist would be expected to
Jeff Buhler's new series adaptation of George R R Martin's 1980's novella, 'Nightflyers', may have the same name, but it sure has its share of differences from the original story, in terms of how certain characters are represented, and the way each narrative or subplot is played out.
All of this has contributed to making the show a much better version of the story than what the cheesy 1987 film adaptation had portrayed, and we can't help but marvel at what a complex character the show's Karl D'Branin is. The concept of 'Nightflyers', the SyFy show by Buhler, is pretty simple when you tally it with other space adventures.
There are underlying elements of both psychological horror and thriller in the story of the titular spaceship heading out to the vast expanse, seeking help from alien life to help life on planet Earth survive. And while all of the crewmembers - astrophysicists, super fighters, psychiatrists and telepaths - are in for their own personal reasons, none of them happen to be as invested in the mission to find the alien race Volcryn, as our man D'Branin.
This brings us to the reasons why D'Branin is the way he is. Why is he riddled with a constant ongoing war about the complex circumstances he has found himself in. The first thing that viewers should be warned about D'Branin is the whole deceased child issue. In his own way, D'Branin is beyond obsessed with the idea of being reunited with his dead daughter who fell prey to a fatal disease back on earth.
Losing a child is never easy, but it took a particularly hard toll on both D'Branin and his wife. While he gets regularly haunted by hallucinations of his dead daughter, his wife back on Earth decides to undergo treatment to have all her memories of their daughter erased from her mind as it's too painful for her to live with them.
Brutal obsession starts controlling all of D'Branin's motives from being extra heavily invested with the mission to find Volcryn "because the thing is that [...] if he meets them, they can bend space-time, he could find his daughter and go back in time to basically, you know, have her not die," explained Eoin Macken (who plays the character) to Collider. "That becomes the big focus of it. So, it’s not about him trying to like find space aliens and shit. It’s about trying to talk to his daughter again or trying to bring her back."
This comes as particularly striking because once you find out D'Branin's whole ulterior motive behind venturing out into space, it becomes clear he's not doing it out of a need to help humanity like a brilliant astrophysicist would be expected to.
Despite him being brilliant at what he does, and his own father being in the same profession, D'Branin - with his achievement complex and discoveries of possible alien life away from Earth - still doesn't want to explore space, because his priorities are staying back home with his family, as Macken explained. Also, we don't know what D'Branin's future on the spaceship is going to be; none of them know what horrors are about to unleash on them as they explore the vast infinities of space.
Still, it is this desperate need to be united with his child that somehow makes D'Branin a slave to circumstances. "When his daughter dies, he ends up pitching the idea through a lecture on the [existence of] an alien life. And, when people don’t believe him, he gets more and more intense about the idea of proving that alien life does exist, and then he’s offered the opportunity where he has to go into space to prove it," Macken said
Let's also add to that the character of Cynthia Eris - which acts as the spaceship's AI and projects eerie images of horror to leave the crew members haunted by their past. In D'Branin's case, it is of course images of his dead daughter speaking to him out of the blue, and all of this is "really what drives him," added Macken. "That’s far more interesting than 'just go find aliens.'"
True, so far, we haven't exactly seen D'Branin try to fight his inherent obsession or engage with any form of the torn duality within his own self - his priority to save human life on Earth, and his obsessive need to be reunited with his dead child. But, if he as an individual on this mission were to fail, it would be because of the complex situations he is swimming in.
Even when fronted with the possible distraction of a rekindled romance with the ship's psychiatrist Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol), D'Branin doesn't blatantly go out of his way to pursue her. Delving into the circumstances that he is in currently - the death of his child, causing his wife to erase him too out of her life - pursuing Matheson seems like a good way to start afresh and healthy.
Considering Matheson was pregnant with his child when they were a thing, and even had to deal with the loss of the baby all alone, this new romantic development could be a good thing for both. But D'Branin is way too possessed by his own motives and also too busy brooding about the unfairness of circumstances.
Yet, at the same time, he can't help but emerge as the leader because of circumstances other people are getting roped into. "He’s kind of gradually superseded all of these relationships," explained Macken. "He gradually starts to be more and more important. Even though he doesn’t want to be a leader, all of the sudden, everyone is kind of deferring to him. And I think that kind of happens just circumstantially a lot. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but in my head, it should keep going that way and then he just doesn’t listen to anybody at all. That’d be fun."
So, at the end of the day, Karl D'Branin is the most complex crew member aboard the Nightflyer, especially because he's at a constant battle within his own self. His potential and expertise are fighting a war against his desires and obsessions, and while others are looking to him for solutions, he himself is struggling to reach the shore.