Welcome to “Mars”…
The first season of National Geographic channel’s new science fiction/documentary series “Mars” (based on the book “How We’ll Live On Mars” by Stephen Petranek) aired in late 2016 with six episodes telling the tale of the first group of humans to settle on the red planet. What differentiates this series from other sci-fi shows is a concurrent present-day commentary (with real scientists and other specialists) interspersed with its fictional story. This unique element is also, despite its educational value, one of this series’ greatest weaknesses.
More on that later…
****PHOBOS-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!****
Season one introduced us to an intrepid group of explorers from the not-too-distant future of 2033, preparing to launch on the first manned mission to colonize Mars. The international crew of the spaceship Daedalus consists of American mission commander Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), American pilot/systems engineer Hanna Seung (singer Jihae), French physician Amaelie Durand (Clementine Poidatz), Spanish geochemist Javier Delgado (Alberto Ammann), Nigerian mechanical engineer Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi), and Russian exobiologist Marta Kamen ( Anamaria Marinca).
On Earth we have the CEO of Mars Mission Corp, Ed Grann (Oliver Martinez) who oversees the international consortium financing the colonization, and in Mission Control we have the capcom (spaceship communicator) Joon Seung, Hanna’s identical twin sister (also played by Jihae, who flexes some serious acting chops in this show).
Tragedy strikes during descent to the Martian surface, and Sawyer is fatally injured; Hanna is forced to take command. Hanna and her crew redouble their efforts to locate subsurface lava tubes (with water ice) in which to form the basis of a subterranean colony, which eventually becomes “Olympus Town.”
During the six episodes of that first season, we saw the establishment of the colony, which is primarily for science with secondary missions being the search for life and the eventual terraforming of the planet. Another unforeseen tragedy arises when the base’s new logistical engineer Leslie Richardson (Coisma Shaw) arrives with her botanist husband to oversee the construction of the base; he suffers a complete mental breakdown (not everyone is cut out to be a brave pioneer) and opens an airlock to the near-vacuum pressure outside in the lava tube. This act kills both himself and most of his crops (which were vital to the health of the colony’s ecosystem). The colony eventually rebounds and forges ahead.
My major issues with the first season are twofold; the first being the seemingly stilted characterizations (a situation remedied in season 2 when the ever-capable actors are given much more to play with). Most of the characters in the first season came off as either flat, or as stalwart cliches, like the ‘right stuff’ skipper Ben Sawyer (who doesn’t last for the full run of the season anyway). The character of Ben Sawyer feels like a human metaphor for the last vestiges of American space leadership, slowly yielding to the more globalist (as well as privatized) space efforts of today.
The second issue (as mentioned earlier) are the nagging talking-heads segments of ‘reality TV’ that are interspersed with the fictional story to give the production documentary value. I get it; this is National Geographic, not the SyFy channel, so there has to be some educational material as well… but it stops the action dead in its tracks.
Imagine if the original classic Star Trek series had to stop every ten minutes for renowned rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun to explain the mechanics of impulse power and warp drive, or how subspace radio works.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the words and wisdom of such big names in present-day science and technology as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, astronaut (and moonwalker) Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, writer Andy Weir or Mars visionary Robert Zubrin. I’m big fans of ALL of these guys… really. I’ve even had the pleasure to meet a few of them in person (Tyson, Aldrin, Weir and Zubrin). I just wish Nat Geo could save all of the commentary for an after-show which could be viewed immediately following the fiction, like AMC’s “The Talking Dead” (which follows the popular horror series “The Walking Dead”).
The DVD/Blu Ray sets of the show could’ve featured the talking heads segments as a separate option to the viewer, like listening to an audio commentary track. It’s not as though what these luminaries have to say isn’t interesting… it is, but I would prefer to watch the fictional part of “Mars” without stopping every few minutes for the show to explain itself.
That’s my biggest gripe with the show.
Let’s move on to season 2, which is very different from season 1, mainly for the better. In fact, I would say that S2 is where Nat Geo’s “Mars” really finds its groove.
Season 2 finds new life, in more ways than one…
Season 2 is where Nat Geo’s “Mars” really catches fire. Taking place several years after the end of season 1, the personal relationships between the longtime colonists are amped up considerably. Hanna’s twin sister Joon suffers a fatal form of brain cancer, and dies en route to Mars for a reunion with her beloved twin. The death takes a heavy emotional toll on Hanna. Hanna’s second-in-command Mike Glenn (Gunnar Cauthery) has issues with her leadership style, culminating in an explosive confrontation in episode 11. We also see a deepening relationship between Amelie and Javier, resulting in the colony’s first pregnancy.
The greatest change to the series’ status quo is the rude arrival of new neighbors; the miners of Lukrum Industries, a private corporation hoping to occupy Mars in pursuit of resources and profit.
Bound by treaties of international space law, Olympus Town is forced to share resources with the Lukrum Mining Colony, including precious water and power allocation (which also requires heavy infrastructure setup). This situation has an obvious Earth parallel presently existing between oceanic researchers/conservationists who are forced to tolerate intrusions from large petroleum companies with their environmentally contaminating rigs and equipment.
What’s very interesting in “Mars” is that the Lukrum miners aren’t necessarily portrayed as one-dimensional bad guys, either. The leader of the Lukrum colony is a charismatic fellow named Kurt Hurrelle (Jeff Hephner), with whom one could see sharing a beer. He even offers to manufacture additional solar panels for Olympus Town in exchange for their aid & resources. Hanna tentatively agrees to the loose alliance, as dictated by treaty which private company Lukrum is not obliged to honor (since they’re not, nor is their company’s base nation, a signatory of the treaty).
Also butting heads with the capitalist neighbors is hot-tempered Russian biochemist Marta, who sees Lukrum as contaminating the virgin environment of Mars. Marta takes a pressurized rover out (against orders) to get samples from the Lukrum mining area after she hears they’ve discovered liquid water (and plan to exploit it, rather than examine it for life). A powerful solar flare strands Marta alone in the cold Martian desert, as her rover loses power and life-support. Lukrum answers Olympus’ distress call and rescues her. Despite Lukrum’s help, the Russian biochemist is still angry at the miners for contaminating her work.
An organism is discovered in the liquid water which turns out to be a hostile microorganism that causes a pandemic between both bases. A base biologist at Olympus Town doesn’t survive, and expectant-father Javier is nearly killed as well. Luckily, an orbiting Chinese manned satellite drops a load of good ol’ penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, which kills the deadly pathogen. Martian life is found, but it’s not exactly Steven Spielberg’s E.T…
Back on Earth, we see the conflict between science and the private sector take shape there as well. Conflicts arise between the somewhat spineless international board of the Mars Corporation, led by former Mars colonist Leslie Richardson, and the forceful CEO of Lukrum, Roland St. John (played by former “Caprica” and “La Bamba” actor Esai Morales).
We also see engineer/pioneer Robert Foucault, who suffers a permanent injury to his arm while constructing heavy supply pipelines between Olympus Town and Lukrum base under a strict deadline. The injury forces Robert to take it easy. During his downtime, he mulls over a tempting offer to work for the ever-expanding Lukrum base. His reasoning is that he’s an engineer and a builder, and with Olympus not expanding, he is not being allowed to do what he does. Kurt really wants Robert’s expertise. Will Robert betray his old friends and fellow pioneers at Olympus Town, not to mention his deepening relationship with Hanna?
This is the kind of gripping, personal, human stuff we didn’t see much of in the sometimes bloodless S1. S2 really delves into what everyday life and human relationships will be like on an arid, cold, inhospitable little planet with a third of Earth’s gravity and a near vacuum outside the confines of its bases. The characters are much more energized in the second season.
The documentary portions of S2 highlight the parallel present-day conflicts between greedy oil companies and efforts to slow the rapid advance of climate change. Even the talking heads segments are more charged in season 2.
“And all the science I don’t understand…”
Even a TV series with this high a standard for scientific accuracy (unlike a more fantastical space series like “Star Trek”), has to fudge a few details to make the series doable. Martian gravity is only a third of what it is here on Earth, yet we see objects and footsteps fall with the same apparent weight they would have here. The pressure suits worn by the colonists in the series are far too thin to sufficiently protect them from harmful radiation levels found at the surface of Mars. Mars’ ultra-thin atmosphere (less than a hundredth of Earth’s sea level pressure) and lack of magnetic field offer little protection from UV radiation and harmful cosmic rays. The gear seen in “Mars” look more like hi-tech skiing outfits than any current concept for a Mars-ready pressure suit. Maybe they’re lined with some sort of as-yet-undeveloped radiation abating material (?). If they are, it hasn’t (as of yet) been mentioned in dialogue. Obviously, the suit design’s scientific compromises are made for the benefit of the actors, who have to spend long hours filming inside of these garments.
These issues were similar to compromises made in Ridley Scott’s 2015 adaptation of Andy Weir’s “The Martian”, which showed astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) walking a bit bouncier (i.e. slower) outside his pressurized habitat, yet moving with apparent Earth-like gravity once inside. Constant low-gravity is very hard to fake for very long on a TV (or even a movie) production budget.
The Martian sunsets on the show do have that uncanny blue tinge found in actual photos from the rovers, and lower gravity is mentioned as a side-effect complicating Amelie’s pregnancy (it’s one of the reasons her unborn child would have to be a permanent resident of Mars; it would have difficulty moving in Earth’s comparatively oppressive gravity). Other complications, such as solar flares, limited resources and even psychological side-effects, are accurately dealt with.
I applaud “Mars” producers Ron Howard and Bryan Grazer (both of “Apollo 13” fame) for having as much scientific and technological authenticity as is possible within the limits of a TV series.
Warming things up on “Mars.”
Despite the ongoing talking heads segments that cut annoyingly across the action of the series, “Mars” S2 has truly began to find itself as a limited dramatic series. S1’s somewhat more stilted style felt like courtroom reenactments at times, whereas S2 feels almost like a full-blooded prequel to “The Expanse.” The international cast continues to deepen and grow in their roles, with singer/star Jinae being singularly impressive as base commander and overall anchor of the series. For most of the series she has had a dual role as Hanna and her recently deceased twin Joon, and she handled both with appropriate gravitas. Similar kudos to Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca) the fiery Russian biochemist with a martyr complex. Marinca’s performance is one hundred percent authentic. All of the series regulars have had chances to unfurl a lot more this year, and they’ve been up to the challenge. Newcomers Kurt Hurrelle (Jeff Hephner) and Roland St. John (Esai Morales) also made interesting and welcome additions to the show.
Season 1 showed the challenges of gaining a foothold on Mars. Season 2 asks the more intriguing question: What will we do with Mars after we get there?
Season 1 of “Mars” is available on DVD/BR, and includes a fascinating prequel segment, which chronicles Hanna and Joon as young girls growing up in the United States…meeting a kindly, retired rocket engineer neighbor who first kindles their passion for outer space. Season 2 is slated for release on DVD/Blu Ray on the 18th of December.