When science fiction fans check the fall TV lineup to decide what offerings they’re going to try out, chances are they’re looking at the network schedules of the CW, Syfy, and other channels known for their genre offerings. The National Geographic Channel wouldn’t be anyone’s first stop for original programming. That is until Nat Geo’s Mars mini-series showed up, promising an authentic look, through the juxtaposition of commentary and storytelling, at the rationale and challenges surrounding the colonization of the red planet.
But Mars isn’t just a series of interviews with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk and the SpaceX team looking to make this vision a reality, although those certainly are included. The six-episode event is mostly a fictional account of the crew of the Daedalus, an international team in 2033 that undertakes the 7-month journey and encounters the problems predicted by the 2016 engineers. The interviews merely provide a context for what the characters are experiencing.
Fortunately, the first episode skips over the time spent in space and jumps right to the landing, one of the most challenging aspects of any Mars mission. Because the planet has such little atmosphere but enough gravity to preclude a lander such as was used during the 1969 moon landing, the shuttle itself must be able to use retro rockets to land on the surface. This difficult task sets up the chain reaction of conflicts and other major dramatic elements that open the fictional story.
The brilliance of Mars being on Nat Geo, though, is that the channel is able to include documentary elements familiar to its regular viewers, which also serve to make the dangers presented in the story more real and immediate. In addition, presenting the 2016 material in this way almost makes it seem like the history that led up to the speculative world being presented in 2033. Non-fiction and fiction blend seamlessly.
One of the most effective examples of the successful meeting of today’s Mars mission progress with the future conflicts presented in the story of the Daedalus comes when actual footage is shared of an attempted landing by one of SpaceX’s reusable rockets. The same jubilance at success and stunned shock at failure pervade both the real control center in 2016 and the mission scientists in 2033. Their forced adaptability in a crisis is a familiar theme for executive producer Ron Howard, who explored similar conflicts in Apollo 13.
The principle characters don’t receive full development in the opening episode of Mars, but the concept of an international team is both expected and welcome as viewers are introduced to the crew comprised of members from the US, Russia, France, Spain, and Nigeria. Of particular interest are the US team members, Ben Sawyer, played by Ben Cotton (The Killing, Blood and Chrome), and twins Joon and Hana Seung, both played by actor/singer/composer JiHAE.
The Korean-American twins gain immediate attention among the ensemble cast with Joon as mission pilot and Hana as capsule commander, or CAPCOM; they’re family separated by millions of miles but united by a common mission. National Geographic also highlighted these two characters by presenting a 30-minute prequel story about a young Joon and Hana growing up as Asian Americans trying to gain acceptance among their peers while having dreams of something bigger (see below).
Mars presents conflicts for the crew of the Daedalus that are difficult for the Earth-bound mission control scientists to assist with because of the long delay in communications between the two planets, and this realistic view of the challenges a real mission to Mars would face makes the show feel less like science fiction and more like speculative drama. By the end, viewers will be signing up for their ticket to Earth’s neighbor!
It will be nice to see more character development as the series progresses, and the small touches that appear in the premiere show promise. For example, the Nigerian roboticist Robert Foucault, played by Sammi Rotibi (Django Unchained, Batman v Superman), seems to really enjoy operating the Mars rover even when the circumstances of his success or failure could mean life or death. Surely the French physician, the Russian geologist, and the Spanish chemist will experience similar character moments as well.
Fortunately, those interested in trying out this hybrid documentary/drama don’t have to wait until the November 14 premiere on the National Geographic Channel. The first episode of Mars, entitled “Novo Mundo” is available now for streaming on the network’s website. Those who decide to wait for the televised version should tune in on Monday at 9pm ET.