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Apple TV's Dark Matter multiverse

Tags: prosetvsark

NOTE: I added the BabelStoneFlags font to the blog to support 🇨🇶

In May 2024, Apple TV+ premiered Dark Matter, a series based on a 2016 book (and not the 2015 space travel TV series).
Jason, a physics professor, is abducted by a jealous alternate universe self to trade places. We then follow one Jason's journey home, and the alternate "Jason2" attempts to assume his family life.

Chicago perspective

When the trailer premiered, the local subreddit noted that the book is set in Chicago but tragically uninformed:

Is this the one with the streets being all wrong and shit

A character getting a slice of deep dish pizza and eating [it] by hand while walking down the street

My favorite part was where the cool artist wife had done a drawing of… Navy Pier! And hung it in their home! Also another beef was that the book mentions that the main character was julienning onions which I don't think is a thing

The series continues this by showing Chicago landmarks in the background of many scenes, naming neighborhoods, etc. It keeps up weirdly being dropped into Chicago - one scene where characters choose the Bean as a meeting point (I shouted), one scene where the character points out the Sears Tower when only the John Hancock is visible (maybe bad editing).

The story hinders itself with rules that the universe-crossing box always appears at the same point in space. In the two main universes, this is in a hangar which is either an abandoned storage space or a research lab. An establishing shot shows that the lab is miles south of the Loop. Yet in other populated universes, the characters always emerge in various points on the North Side: on the Gold Coast, Montrose Harbor, inside a house, and one time on the shoulder of a highway. I'm not sure how obvious this movement is to a non-Chicagoan.
Credit to PastMaps for this 1889 map overlay. Montrose Harbor was filled in between 1901 and 1929, so in many universes their location on the North Side should just be in a swamp or Lake Michigan. However they generally seem to arrive surrounded by nature or by the modern 2000s skyline so I can't complain too much.

Sci-fi perspective

The universes are introduced with Schrodinger's cat and the concept of observers. This hinges on two painful tropes: 'quantum' taken to mean whatever a plot needs, and a science/math genius making discoveries solely with topics which the average viewer/reader heard about in high school. DNA sequencing was new and cloning unproven when Jurassic Park released, but Crichton and Spielberg found ways to make it comprehensible.
Here we're told that Schrodinger's cat is both dead and alive until the state is observed, of course implying this is a literal human observation. The plot mechanics backtrack, eventually deciding that the human inside the box takes a drug to avoid observing their own superposition. Wouldn't turning off part of their brain affect their thinking, consciousness, ability to converse or remember? Nope it's just a drug to safely enter superposition. Never mind that we started with two Jasons who split ~17 years ago, and friends in their universes with other differences, and this reconnects them. Please just call it what it is.
Inside the box, the traveler opens a door to a universe based on their specific mindset. A little like The Lost Room? No one returned from universe-jumping before, because they are often matched to their own deadly fears. Amanda, a psychologist, helps Jason control his mind and evolve from words to feelings. We're told that what they see in the box is what the brain projects to show multi-dimensional space, but does that mean the traveler is thinking/visualizing their path out of hyperspace? Is it the brain or the box?
Maybe in an old draft the neural drugs let the box read their minds.

In the alternate universe, Jason2 and his wife Daniela never married. I understand that this is a ""chick flick"" extended for streaming TV, but the stakes are ridiculous. In the universe where both are single, they became dramatically more famous and successful, but we're assured that the family in the original universe is worth it. Jason2 maybe broke the whole multiverse for this scheme.
Meanwhile alt-Daniela has failed to move on - her art show on roads not taken comically features large photos of Jason. This reminded me of It's a Wonderful Life where without George Bailey, Mary is "an old maid", a librarian who wears glasses. Let Daniela live her full best life in the alternate universe. Let her be bi. Give Jason some questions for when he comes home. Of course this is not allowed in this multiverse and she is killed off.

The final arc of the series took me by surprise, in a good way. But it doesn't make a lot of sense. The author had to publicly admit that it happened to only one of the traveling characters for story reasons.

Going back to nitpick about the highway box: did it suddenly appear, or was it built and abandoned there, or they ignored it when building the road..? We don't see any reactions to a giant physics box appearing. The Apple TV+ subreddit argued about this.
My opinion: the box didn't have someone building it in the Alphaverse or in nature universes, so it must appear shortly before an arrival. Maybe they were afraid to be too Doctor Who or Bill and Ted, or raise questions about how they will a copy of the box into existence in a universe.

Pedantic extras

In a snowy universe, the characters struggle to return, briefly using a GPS before the phone fails. They do acknowledge that GPS satellites must still be operating. I think that was to maintain tension that the characters could get lost. But if there's anything visible and they don't travel too far, their location within Chicago should be obvious.
They generally avoid similar issues around bringing tech / phones across universes. They do start to Google themselves.

The show brings up issues with money, which it can't solve. In the first episodes, universes are similar enough that Jason uses his own keys. In later episodes, "Jason2" keeps bags of alternate-US cash; but he warns someone not to steal from another universe because of matching serial numbers (???). The original Jason says that you can't live cash-only in our universe. Yet mid-season, Jason and Amanda book hotel rooms, go to bars, and buy snacks on the street shortly after arriving in the universe.
There are no universes where they make a mistake and are found out, except when their local self is known to have died.
In a futuristic universe, Amanda assumes the identity of her alternate self with biometrics, but what happens the other times? Maybe in inhabited Chicagos, Jason uses his Illinois driver's license and credit card, and that's all connected on the backend.
Maybe they should carry gold and diamonds.

One of Daniela's friends, Blair, is a universe-jumper in the alt-universe. But they never run with this. She and Leighton, the other Black character with story added in the TV show, have a bitter or nihilistic phase.
Leighton's life is changed in both timelines by investing in Jason's project.
He is also the only character shown to be gay.
Blair helps Daniela talk through her relationship issues, but the dialogue and Jason2's social media check don't reveal much of her personal life.

Another family friend, Ryan, wins a Nobel-like prize which he graciously says ought to be awarded to Jason. In the alt universe, Jason2 did win the prize years earlier. I interpreted this to mean that they were physicists with a friendly rivalry. But Ryan makes neurochemicals? Ryan offers Jason a job (?), and when he sees chemicals, assumes that Jason developed them (??) weeks after quitting his physics professor job (???).

Comparable media

From 2011's The Change-Up: a father of twins and his carefree friend do a Freaky Friday and learn about each other's lifestyle. But they aren't the same person and it's very early 2000s.

In 2019, Netflix had a series Living with Yourself where Paul Rudd's character duplicates himself and has to coexist in the same world. There are similar themes, like how the main character only learns that he's neglecting his home life when a duplicate shows up. I should re-watch it sometime.