The First episode 1 review: Separation

Sean Penn starts in new space programme drama The First, from former House Of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon. Spoilers…

Warning: contains spoilers from the start.

1.1 Separation

Space travel is a serious business, and The First, a new eight-episode drama about the inaugural human mission to Mars, is a duly serious drama. It’s solemn, not just because of the disaster that occurs in episode one, but because it takes itself and its themes seriously: the optimism of human endeavour. The pain of failure. Sean Penn jogging topless.

That last one’s not a theme, but it happens with such frequency in episode one, we at least have to consider it a motif. Penn plays Captain Tom Hagerty, the original commander of a Mars mission, who was removed from his post by private space exploration company boss Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) for reasons unknown. Perhaps he refused to wear a top.  

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Why Hagerty was fired is the first of several mysteries delicately laid out by episode one. The second is what caused the catastrophic launch failure that killed five astronauts minutes after the Mars mission launched. The third is what caused the estrangement between Hagerty and his daughter Denise. The fourth is what’s going on with inscrutable CEO Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). 

The super-rich head of a private space travel company, while not robotic, it’s clear that Ingram is not a people person. “How could I possibly reply? That’s irrelevant,” she tells a journalist who asks how she’s feeling on the morning of the launch. Feelings and relationships, we sense, aren’t her area of expertise. She’s there to do a job. And that job has just failed in front of a crowd of two billion people. 

It’s a high stakes premise that affords real spectacle, combined with a hefty budget that can afford to stage it. The explosion, coming after scenes puffed with such optimism and pride, is both a cruel shock and a stunning sight. Director Agnieszka Holland lingers on the hanging cloud, a static, silent second before the realisation hits the crowd and panic ensues. 

The First deals well in silence, or more properly, without dialogue. Episode one tells its story confidently in long stretches of quiet, crediting the audience with the imagination to interpret its characters. Everything we see Hagerty doing before he speaks a word builds a picture. He’s kind to his dog, performs a minor household repair… The First introduces the man before it introduces the astronaut, a character-centred approach that extends throughout.

It also has room, in the sparseness of its dialogue (if not its music, which is heavily foregrounded, almost to the point of didacticism) to make some profound statements on life, death and the human condition. A trivial mechanical failure—Hagerty’s kitchen sink—is put side by side with a colossal and catastrophic one in the launch disaster. A man who began the day by missing out on what must be a lifelong dream to travel to Mars ended it as a man who narrowly avoided death. Hagerty watches his colleagues burn to death, then goes home to clean up his dog’s mess. Life, death and acts of historical ambition are put side by side with the trivial and day-to-day.

At forty-two minutes, episode one isn’t satisfying on its own. We feel the need of more story, and more than one poignant, solemn atmosphere. It’s a handsome and expensive-looking, if a little pulseless start. As a way in though, the opener promises thoughtful drama that, like its characters, has lofty ambitions. 

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The First continues next Thursday the 8thof November on Channel 4 at 9pm.