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How Blake Crouch Turned His Best-Selling Sci-Fi Thriller into Apple TV+’s Dark Matter

6 minute read

When we meet Jason Dessen (Joel Edgerton) in Apple TV+'s Dark Matter, it's quickly clear he's a committed family man who cares deeply about his wife, Daniela (Jennifer Connelly), and their teenage son, Charlie (Oakes Fegley). But as a humble college professor who gave up what could've been a groundbreaking career in quantum physics, he sometimes still thinks about the road untraveled.

That all changes when a mysterious masked man abducts Jason off the Chicago streets one night and transports him into an alternate version of his life where he chose work over family 15 years earlier. In this universe, Jason is an award-winning physicist who built a metal cube that functions as a gateway to multiple realities. And it's that Jason, Jason2, who kidnapped our Jason in a ploy to switch places with him.

Based on showrunner Blake Crouch's best-selling 2016 novel of the same name, Dark Matter follows Jason as he fights to make it back to his own reality and reunite with his wife and son. The story and the show, the first two episodes of which are now streaming, explore the "what ifs" of existence, which Crouch says he was reflecting on in his own life when he came up with the idea for the book.

"I was in my mid-30s," he says. "And I felt like I'd been alive long enough to sort of look back at all the paths I'd taken and not taken and start to wonder what if I had done this instead of that."

That line of thinking was also what got executive producer Matt Tolmach (The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming) on board for the adaptation. "I was immediately drawn to the existential questions running through the heart of this series that are so universal and deeply rooted," he told TIME in an email. "They're questions that I think most people ask themselves at some point in their lives: Is this all there is? Is this who I am meant to be? Am I happy? Would I choose this life if I could go back to some of the forks in the road? They’re basic questions, but in Blake’s world, they open a wild can of worms."

Read more: The Best Sci-Fi TV Shows of All Time

Joel Edgerton as Jason Dessen in Dark Matter
Joel Edgerton as Jason Dessen in Dark Matter.Apple TV+

What is Dark Matter about?

Without giving the game away, Dark Matter sends Jason on what at first seems to be a wild goose chase into the multiverse of the box, a never-ending corridor that serves as a physical manifestation of human consciousness. The mind-bending hallway contains an infinite number of doors leading to an infinite number of parallel universes representing every possible outcome of every possible event. Think Schrödinger's cat on a grand-scale level.

The scientific concepts on which the show's plot hinges have the potential to send viewers down a rabbit hole of quantum mechanics. But Crouch doesn't think it's necessary to get caught up in the specifics. "The science is there for those who want it," he says. "But we went out of our way not to beat people over the head with it. All you really have to know is, you go into the box, you take a drug, the box becomes an infinite corridor, and behind each door in that corridor is a different world."

How the show brings the book to life

In adapting Dark Matter for the screen, Crouch saw an opportunity to explore a road not taken in his book. While the novel is told almost exclusively from Jason's point of view, the show jumps back and forth between a variety of character's perspectives, giving viewers more insight into different relationships.

"A few years after Dark Matter was published, there was this lingering thing in the back of my mind about not having really given any time to the Daniela and Jason2 storyline," he says. "And I always wondered what that story would have been like, if we had followed this woman living with a man who looks just like her husband but isn't, and she's slowly realizing that something is off. It felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. So when the chance to do the show came up, I immediately was like, 'Well, that would be amazing.'"

But in establishing the laws of the series' universe, Crouch also realized he would have to do away with elements of the novel he had become attached to. "There's a moment in the book that I love when Jason is alone in the corridor and he sees another version of himself stumbling around who's cut up and naked and has obviously been through some terrible thing," Crouch says. "But I realized I had broken the rules of my own book by doing that scene. It didn't actually track logically. That was a hard one to let go."

Joel Edgerton and Dayo Okeniyi in Dark Matter
Joel Edgerton and Dayo Okeniyi in Dark Matter.Apple TV+

Entering the fray of the multiverse

As the show got closer to becoming a reality, there was also a major surge in multiverse-centric content to consider. When Crouch published Dark Matter in 2016, it was before the multiverse boom brought on by the Marvel movies, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and more. Nearly 10 years on, an abundance of universe-hopping stories have entered the mainstream, all garnering their own praise and criticism. "The question was how do we sort of set ourselves a little bit apart," Crouch says.

For Tolmach, that meant establishing a tone that would get viewers to buy into the show's fantastical sci-fi premise. "When Blake and I started working on this adaptation, there weren’t nearly as many shows or movies in the multiverse space," he says. "But what I was most drawn to [with Dark Matter] was this idea playing out in a very grounded world, among very relatable characters—not superheroes, ordinary people exploring the roads not taken. That still feels very original and unique to me."

Ultimately, it's Dark Matter's engaging characters that Crouch believes will keep viewers coming back for more. "You can kind of do anything you want in storytelling if you make the audience fall in love with the characters," he says. "We tried to inoculate ourselves against the alt-reality fiction craze by saying, 'Let's just make great characters that people care about and hope that they want to follow them along on their journey.'"

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com