Review: Killjoys (Syfy, Netflix)

Canadian television – apologies to Canada but while there must be Canadian TV shows I can’t think of any. The shadow of the TV behemoth south of the Canadian border looms large. So a Canadian answer to Firefly doesn’t immediately sound likely. [eta: apologies to Canada, I’d forgotten about Orphan Black among others]

I watched a couple of episodes of Season 1 initially, just because it appeared on the list of things people were nominating for a Dragon Award (it didn’t get onto the final ballot) but not long after it also got a positive write up in the Guardian.

Those first episodes were not great though and I pretty much decided not to bother watching the rest of the series. Then, once again bored on a train too noisy to read comfortably and having exhausted all available episodes of Rick and Morty, I watched some more and…it got better.

The initial premise of the show was this. On a planetary system with a bunch of human colonised moons (known as the Quad), a kind of freelance, bounty-hunting, law enforcement agency called the RAC catches (or sometimes kills) wanted criminals. The bounty hunters are known as Killjoys because “joys” are the local currency and they (occasionally) kill people. At the start of the season, the two main characters are a two person team Dutch (an ex-assassin) and Johnny Jaqobi (a less amoral and more geeky pilot) as well as their (stolen) spaceship/AI Lucy. The initial episodes involved the arrival of Johnny’s brother Da’vin into the system, an ex-soldier with psychological trauma.

While not terrible, it also wasn’t great. The three main actors were good, in particular, Hannah John-Kamen as Dutch managed to stop her role as sexy-badass-assassin from being actively bad and say corny lines with conviction. The stories themselves were a bit dull (mainly catch the baddy of the week) and while the premise of the show was original it all somehow felt terribly derivative. The Firefly DNA was obvious but also a heap of tropes from everywhere and everything just piled up together in the apparent hope that something would stick. Dutch’s backstory as a child raised to be a deadly killer who got away from that life etc smacked of a show that wanted depth just by throwing tragedy at its characters.

Episode 5, the midway point of Series 1, managed the first story that had some real strength. The crew find a derelict space ship, climb aboard to get the salvage and find things that aren’t what they seem. A decent episode with enough twists and nasty premise but also a bit of shift in direction.

From that point on the show spent more time on the bigger story arcs, let the three main characters play off against each other with both more humour and emotions and it got better.

It still tries too hard for ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ and doesn’t always manage to hit its target of Wheedon-style humour. Given it also wants gritty, violent and central characters with a past of psychological trauma, it also sails into consequences of plots that it doesn’t always handle well (in particular, without giving spoilers, violence between people after a sexual relationship). However, even then it is clearly trying to navigate issues in a way that is positive.

Although it doesn’t have much in common storywise with Torchwood, Killjoys finds itself often in that same tonal-minefield. Violence, sex, psychological abuse, mixed with questions about torture, life-or-death decisions and hitting the not-nice SF tropes around mind control and consent is heavy stuff…and mixing that with quips and comradery doesn’t always work. But like Torchwood, it often finds a route through and a strong cast keeps it going.

Season 2 is much stronger by being more willing to accept that ‘space bounty hunters’ is a pretext for a show rather than a basis for each episode. Conspiracies, ancient warrior monks, super-soldiers, green goo, it piles on the silliness with confidence that a show like this needs over the top story lines and thinks that don’t make sense if you think about them for too long.

Should you watch it? Lots of fight scenes. Fans of classic Doctor Who will enjoy the frequent use of old quarries repurposed as different planets (sorry ‘moons’). The bad guys are an evil corporation and rich people. Lots of shooting. Episodes 1 to 4 of season1 are a bit meh, after that stronger but sometimes more problematic.

Season 3 is apparently airing or will be soon but is not yet on Netflix.

24 thoughts on “Review: Killjoys (Syfy, Netflix)

  1. “over the top story lines and things that don’t make sense if you think about them for too long” doesn’t sound the sort of thing you would expect from Canada – but it’s a pretty good fit for Lexx, too (okay, that one was Canadian’German co-production)

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  2. I’ve tried a couple times to get into KILLJOYS, but it just doesn’t give me enough science-fictional goodness. As the reviewer pointed out, lots of quarries, lots of warehouses, but not enough SF-style settings. And it’s mostly just shooting and soap-opera type relationships. My main beef, though, is that the lead characters are much too contemporary seeming. One even did the “that’s what she said” joke once!

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  3. I quite like Killjoys, it’s not brilliant but good enough is good enough. It and Dark Matter keep the SciFi torch lit during the summer between Expanse seasons.

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    1. The episode titles also have a familiar punny nature to those familiar to 770 Filers. Especially Season 3, which has had The Hullen Have Eyes and Necropolis Now amongst others.

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  4. “(in particular, without giving spoilers, violence between people after a sexual relationship)”

    I disagree. I thought it handled that very gracefully, with a deft touch, and sensitively. Without any spoilers all I can say is that it dealt with the change in relationship afterwards well, from all parties, and the anger/guilt/distance and ambivalence that would occur in that situation. It was certainly nowhere near Torchwood’s problematic and rapey elements being played for comedy.

    I agree with you about Ep 1-4 though. When I saw them the first time I just thought it was a fun light wannabe Firefly, that was ok but not great. It picked up after that for sure, and season 2 improved on it further.

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    1. I think some of the cast of Killjoys should sound more Canadian. They let the lead character keep their British accent though (which is good because she says “arse” a lot)

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      1. I should see if I can swing myself a sweet, sweet consulting gig, eh? I already have the first regional accent lesson queued up. (oh, how I miss those stubby bottles, we used to put them in snowbanks to chill during parties).

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  5. Season 3 (currently airing in the US) gets much darker very fast. It also demonstrates that Hannah John-Kamen does icy terrifying sociopath really well.

    I’ve liked this show quite a lot. It does have a bit of a Firefly vibe, only with far more female agency and 99% fewer space whores.

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  6. Yeah I watched the first couple episodes and didn’t press on. I thought it was okay but fell into “generic dark aciton sci-fi rawr!” traps a bit too much so I wasn’t thrilled with it, about 100% agree with your assessment.

    Good to hear that season 2 gets better, I really liked Dark Matter season 1 and thought that had a lot of potential and season 2 really crapped out hard so I was hesitant for more SYFY at that point.

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    1. I think even Season 1 gets better – whether it is just me getting the right feel for the show or the show getting a better sense of what it does. Not great TV but fun TV.

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