In an age of remakes, reboots, and adaptations, unique concepts in film and television can feel increasingly rare. Sci-fi television is laden with new Star Trek iterations and reboots of older shows. There’s nothing wrong with these shows — Star Trek will never cease to entertain, and well-done remakes can bring beloved classics to new audiences. But sometimes, audiences are left craving stories that feel original and exciting.
2021’s Debris was one such story. Its fascinating premise stood out not only among sci-fi media, but television in general. Unfortunately, as the season went on, it layered mystery on top of mystery without offering answers, leading many viewers to give up on the show as the payoff never came. Ultimately, this led to low numbers and the series’ cancelation. However, the show’s potential was undeniable. Had it had the chance to continue, it could have offered sci-fi fans a unique perspective on age-old concepts of the genre — something that feels lacking in today’s TV landscape.
The premise of Debris surrounds an alien ship that crashed in Earth’s orbit a few years prior. For six months, bits and pieces of the ship (the titular debris) have been falling to the planet’s surface, the foreign technology causing chaos and confusion where it lands. Brian Beneventi of the CIA and Finola Jones of MI6 investigate and collect these pieces of debris, trying to determine their functions and purposes, all while a mysterious organization tries to collect the debris for their own ends.
Debris offered a unique take on the concept of aliens coming to Earth. It wasn’t the beings themselves who arrived, only their technology. Was it sent to us on purpose? Were the aliens planning on attacking, invading, or colonizing Earth — or did they simply want to study us? Was their destination somewhere else entirely? Their purpose is unknown, and the bits and pieces of their ship are the only clues that the characters have. And as the show progresses, it becomes clear that almost everyone involved has their own plans and their own motives for collecting the debris.
Debris was created and produced by J.H. Wyman, who formerly worked as an executive producer for sci-fi procedural Fringe. Fans of the latter recognized similar themes in Debris, particularly regarding the characters and how they interact with the technology they encounter. Some have criticized Debris as “all head, no heart,” attributing the show’s lack of success to this quality. However, it’s a blatantly inaccurate description. Like Fringe, Debris tells a science fiction story through an empathetic human lens.
The show uses the concept of the debris itself to develop and deepen its characters. Both Finola and Bryan’s past traumas and defining moments are explored through the technology they encounter. In the first episode, Finola — despite knowing how dangerous the debris can be — falls victim to its influence after the technology showed her visions of her deceased mother. Bryan, as viewers learn over the course of the show, is tormented by an event from his time in the military — and in a later episode, we get to see this event through the workings of the debris itself.
The science fiction conceits of the show don’t just pose fascinating questions about the universe beyond our planet and beings outside of humanity. They also serve as catalysts for character development, deepening relationships between them and showing audiences their hidden depths. Finola must confront her complicated history with her family when she reunites with her resurrected father; Bryan finally understands what Finola really means to him after the debris thrusts him into a separate timeline. The technology they encounter may be alien, but the conflicts that the characters experience and must resolve are deeply human.
Though its numbers may have fallen, those who enjoyed the show were disappointed at its cancelation because there was so much more to tell. What debris had George Jones discovered that was said to be a “game changer?” What is this mysterious ball of light? And most importantly, what do the unseen extraterrestrials want with humanity; specifically, why are they interested in manipulating human emotion? But it wasn’t just the answers to these questions that fans wanted — it was the continuation of a show that offered something different.
Debris had its flaws; namely, its use of the “mystery box” concept failed to work as the driving force behind the story. However, it’s not unheard of for television shows to shift their focus as seasons go on. Had a Season 2 been on the table, the show could have taken on a more serialized structure more suited to the mystery box approach, rather than the mystery-of-the-week that left so many loose threads hanging in Season 1. Plenty of great shows take awhile to find their footing, but despite its fantastic concept and the cast’s great performances, Debris was never given the chance to correct its missteps.
Ultimately, though the show’s numbers may have justified the decision, it’s an all-too-familiar feeling to watch a fascinating sci-fi concept get thrown away after one season. Debris‘ cancelation means the loss of a highly original story, at a time when they can feel few and far between.