If great science fiction often inspires a sense of wonder, then “Debris” star Jonathan Tucker is already overwhelmed. Roughly 25 minutes into our phone interview, the ruminative actor mentioned an article he read in The New Yorker about an object in space that’s “moving with a speed and property no one can explain.” As Tucker described the story, his voice got higher and his words tumbled out faster; the thrill of discovery shifted to a big picture curiosity in what it really means.
Given the story, it’s easy to imagine plenty others reacting the same way. The print edition had a simple headline: “Swinging on a Star.” But the online version puts its awe-inspiring question right up top: “Have We Already Been Visited by Aliens?”
“They think it’s a UFO — they genuinely believe it’s a UFO,” Tucker said. “And they call the UFO ‘Oumuamua,’ which is named from the Hawaiian language [where the object was first spotted]. These legitimate people from NASA and Harvard actually think this is a vehicle from another planet. You gotta read this article, it’s incredible.”
Tucker’s palpable excitement matches the kind of response his new NBC drama aims to elicit. “Debris,” which airs its seventh episode April 12, follows two government agents as they investigate inexplicable incidents caused by wreckage from an alien craft. Tucker’s Bryan Beneventi is a CIA operative bound by duty, while Riann Steele plays Finola Jones, an MI-6 agent who just lost her father (or so she thinks). Tasked with working together for the greater good of both countries, the partners have to think outside the box in order to help solve their increasingly perplexing assignments.
In one episode, a chunk of debris opens a portal to another dimension, trapping a teenage girl for two years. Another piece terraforms a small town farm, causing its migrant workers to breathe chlorine instead of oxygen. The pilot depicts a mysterious group of extremists named Influx who can beam themselves from one place to another.
“There’s more teleporting,” Tucker said. “We’ve got people who age in reverse. There’s ESP [extrasensory perception]. We’ve got time travel […] It has all this unique stuff — there’s also this idea that it manifests what you want when you get it in your hands.”
Surreal storylines like these add their own sense of wonder to “Debris,” while big questions about the show’s mythology, as well as the odd-couple partnership at its core, bring to mind past sci-fi hits. That’s no coincidence. Creator J.H. Wyman was an executive producer and writer on Fox’s cult classic “Fringe,” as well as the short-lived fan-favorite “Almost Human,” both of which owe a debt to the pinnacle of paranormal investigation shows, “The X-Files.” Now, the question is whether “Debris” can live up to its own inspirations.
“All these shows talk to each other; they communicate with each other,” Tucker said, noting he studied David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s dynamic on “The X-Files” to prepare for “Debris.” “If you’re a fan of ‘Fringe,’ you’ve watched ‘The X-Files,’ and you’ve probably seen ‘Orphan Black’ or ‘Black Mirror.’ Everything is always communicating, but especially within genres, and this is no different.”
Structurally, “Debris” models itself after its predecessors. Its story combines an expanding mythology involving governmental secrets with “debris of the week” procedural plots. Each episode starts with a supernatural event tied to the debris, before bringing in Bryan and Finola to crack the case. Perhaps most reminiscent are the opening credits, which feature cascading lights over dark backgrounds, conspiracy key words superimposed over mysterious images, and a soft piano score that sounds like Mark Snow’s “X-Files” theme crossed with Ramin Djawadi’s “Westworld” opener.
“You want to find really successful beats,” Tucker said. “You’re not going to copy them, per se, but you want to be inspired by them.”
James Dittiger / NBC
Duchovny’s FBI conspiracy-theorist Fox Mulder often let himself get swept away by his now-iconic motto: “I want to believe.” That same passion drives “Debris,” though there’s no need for doubt. Aliens are out there. One of their ships is scattered across Earth. So the questions facing Bryan, Finola, and the rest of humanity are no longer about whether or not extraterrestrial life exists; it’s what humanity does next, knowing that they do.
“It’s sensational, and all the stuff is so fantastic, but it’s all on Earth,” Tucker said. “We, as actors, are responding to it the same way the characters are because we’re on terra firma. It’s not like we’re shooting the movie ‘Gravity’ or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ — this is just on Earth. Wild things are happening on Earth.”
To that end, the early episodes of “Debris” carry a common, melancholic theme that pairs with our planet’s current mood. These characters are in mourning, and they’re helping people process their grief. The pilot focuses on a family who recently lost a child. Another episode sees Finola asking a father if he’d rather risk death with his family or live on without them. Meanwhile, the British agent is still wrestling with the loss of her own father, while Bryan is more focused on moving forward, perhaps because it’s too painful to look back.
“[Coping with loss] is certainly an overarching theme for the first season,” Tucker said. “It’s almost like the first season is a logline of every Pixar movie you’ve ever seen: a woman trying to find her dad, and a guy saying goodbye to his father.”
Tucker hopes this earnest engagement with humanity’s fear of the unknown can help a world still processing the effects of a pandemic, and in doing so, find its own distinction amid television’s great science fiction shows. With NBC’s “Manifest” and the CBS drama “Evil” as the two most prominent sci-fi series on broadcast, there’s certainly room for another paranormal procedural to pick up the “X-Files” mantle. Only time will tell if “Debris” can find its place in the stars.
“Debris” airs new episodes Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC. The series is also available to stream via Hulu and Peacock.