When Nat Geo’s Mars first hit the scene, it was praised for its successful blending of speculative fiction and documentary-style non-fiction, but it was also criticized for the imbalance between an understated story of the future and a much more interesting look at the present-day state of our Mars aspirations. Viewers may be happy to hear that when the series returns on November 12, they’ll notice a shift towards a much more dramatic tale of love and loss on the red planet, but with that change of focus comes the occasional deficiency in the illustrative examples from our own situation on Earth.
In some episodes of the new season, the non-fiction explorations perfectly mirror what’s going on in the story of the Mars colonists, now living in a much more populated and expansive Olympus Town base nearly a decade after the first landing depicted in Mars season 1. The idea of the frontier, for example, is present both in the opening episode’s introduction of the private corporation Lukrum, which seeks to mine the red planet’s resources for financial gain, and in the current exploitation of Arctic oil reserves on Earth, a vocation depicted as being as dangerous and remote as colonizing Mars, with family members separated from one another in both the fiction and non-fiction storylines.
At other times, the attempt to juxtapose our current events with a science fiction story arc don’t quite work, as with a plotline involving a somewhat far-fetched outbreak of disease. If the drama that unfolds on Mars had been on its own in this example, it would have been as effective as any sci-fi episode of the week, but the interview segments with Neil deGrasse Tyson and others seem forced to present the possibility of killer bacteria from Mars as a real concern, and the story of anthrax outbreaks in the Yamal peninsula seem to be mostly about criticizing the oil companies as in the earlier examples and about emphasizing the effects of climate change. Careful, Mars, your agenda is showing!
That being said, the story of Olympus Town and the new Lukrum colony is an enjoyable one, and the characters from season 1 have become standouts in a wonderful ensemble cast. The intimacy and heartache between the team’s chemist Javier and physician Amelie is extremely compelling, and the chemistry between the two actors, Alberto Ammann and Clementine Poidatz, is palpable. Viewers will enjoy the emotional roller coaster ride these two provide throughout the season, even leading to a climactic personal moment for the couple in the finale.
Mission commander Hana Seung also enjoys her highs and lows in Mars season 2, taking full advantage of actor Jihae’s powerful personality and wide range of emotion. The competition that is bred between her colony and the Lukrum base with their differing priorities creates a nice tension for several of the storylines, and her counterpart at the mining colony, Kurt Hurrelle (Jeff Hephner of Chicago Fire/Chicago Med), is a brash, sexist blowhard when an enemy is needed and a sensitive, understanding colleague when cooperation between the bases becomes necessary.
The voice of science in the inevitable struggle against those who would exploit the untouched planet is Russian geologist and xenobiologist, Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca), who really becomes the MVP character in season 2 despite the fact that her conflicts with the powers that be have some dire consequences. She becomes the audience’s proxy in a sense, not just because the non-fiction half of the show clearly frames the dangers of emphasizing resource exploitation over the pursuit of science, but because the politics between the IMSF and Lukrum back on Earth become a frustration that threatens to spoil the wonder of a human colony on Mars for the characters and the viewers.
The other characters from last season, Robert (Sammi Rotibi) and Leslie (Cosima Shaw) don’t have quite as much to do in this installment, but their developments are still handled expertly. Robert, the team’s engineer and roboticist, even acknowledges several times that his design skills are not being fully utilized, and this fact even brings about an interesting dynamic when Kurt at the Lukrum colony recognizes his talents. Leslie is Earth-side this season as the new General Secretary of the IMSF (Hana’s twin, Joon, has other aspirations that are explored early on), and after some initial insecurities has some moments of true grit that keep her character relevant.
Mars season 2 takes a lighter touch with the actual terraforming of Mars, which might be of greater interest to some viewers used to speculative fiction alone, but the show does present a message of hope in a subtle but effective subplot involving the creation of solar mirrors being placed in orbit with the cooperation of Lukrum and a Chinese space station above the planet. The timeline of such efforts are necessarily accelerated for narrative reasons, which does present some difficulties for a show that presents the real possibilities for Mars colonization in its non-fiction half, but the idea of a habitable second home for humanity is a welcome carryover from season 1, even if it reinforces the inevitability of resource exploitation and the destruction of the planet’s natural state.
All in all, Mars has successfully fixed the narrative/documentary imbalance from season 1, and the unique mixture continues to be a hallmark of the series. The fact that Nat Geo is able to carry off such a compelling storyline along with the non-fiction elements that make the possibilities seem more real and attainable is something to be admired. The interview segments somehow never interrupt the flow of the story even when the overt climate change agenda creates dissonance with the idea of terraforming another planet. With a great ensemble cast and a deeply emotional narrative, Mars season 2 is definitely worth a return to the science portion of the channel line-up.
Mars season 2 returns to Nat Geo on November 12, 2018 at 9/8c for another run of six episodes. The series will be discussed in the December edition of our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast as well. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss it! Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Soundcloud