Bit of quick preamble; anyone who’s read this site for awhile probably knows that I am an irredeemable Mars-geek, and a sizable chunk of my book and DVD library relates to Mars, either through real-life probe findings or fictional Mars exploits. For me, the gold standard of fictional Mars missions in this past decade has been Andy Weir’s 2011 book “The Martian”, which managed (with only a few fictional fudges) to convey many of the challenges, engineering and otherwise, that would be involved in living on Mars for any length of time. Ridley Scott’s 2015 film is one of the most faithful book-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen, faithfully capturing Weir’s story, as experienced through his smart-ass avatar, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon). Going back much earlier, there was the far less scientifically accurate, though no less enjoyable 1964 flick, “Robinson Crusoe On Mars”, which was one of the movies that first sparked my own interest in the Red Planet. It too, dealt with the isolation from Earth as well as the challenges of life in a hostile environment.
More recently there was a ten episode Hulu series called “The First” (2018) which starred Sean Penn as the most melancholy astronaut ever. The series saw Penn dealing with a rebellious daughter and his own survivor’s guilt (after an explosion kills the first Mars crew), as he prepares to take off for Mars with a group of sad-sack astronauts. The show was a complete downer, and it (mercifully) ended just as the crew headed off for Mars at the end of the season. Clearly a second season was planned, but fortunately, it never happened. Now, Netflix has got a case of Mars fever with a new series starring Oscar winner Hilary (“Boys Don’t Cry”) Swank as Commander Emma Green, the leader of an intentional expedition to Mars.
****PHOBOS & DEIMOS-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
The 10-episode first season of “Away” is, superficially, about a crew of astronauts preparing to land on Mars. That was the hook that first got my attention, anyway. However, “Away” is all about the angst of separation (hence the title). The series, created by Andrew Hinderaker, could’ve just as easily been about a group of soldiers doing an extended tour in Afghanistan or Iraq. Mars is incidental–a massive technical pain in the ass to be overcome. There is little romance for the Red Planet, nor appreciation for the mythical power its long held over humanity. “Away” is much more about Earthly domestic drama, which is well-acted for the most part, but as the old song says “the thrill is gone.” If anything, going to Mars is portrayed in this series as a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
We first meet Commander Emma Green (Swank), with her medically-disqualified astronaut husband Matt Logan (Josh Charles) and daughter Alexis (Talitha Elania Bateman) as she is nervously preparing to take center stage in an international press event the night before she and her crew leave for moonbase Alpha (yes, fellow Space: 1999 fans; I think that was an honest-to-goodness homage), where her rocket ride to Mars awaits…
We also meet Emma’s international crew. The flight’s doctor and second-in-command is Dr. Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), a young Indian who suffers survivor’s guilt over an older brother who died caring for him in his youth. The chief engineer is a cynical, sixty-something Russian cosmonaut named Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir) with rapidly failing eyesight who’s logged more time in space than anyone else. We then meet Dr. Lu Wang (Vivian Wu), a soft-spoken Chinese taikonaut, who is married with a son, and is also in a deeply closeted relationship with a charismatic ground controller named Mei (Nadia Hatta). Rounding out the group is spaceflight-novice and botanist Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), a Ghana-born, British citizen raised by Jewish parents after his impoverished birth parents died of dysentery. If nothing else, his show is absolutely loaded with diverse casting, which is one of its more admirable traits. The actors who play these roles ably tackle the heavy melodrama we see over the next ten episodes.
No sooner than the ride to the moon is where the s#!t begins to hit the fan. A brief fire happens en route when Emma and Kwesi unwittingly open a panel with an explosive substance leaking behind it. Trying to capture the dangerous liquid with her sweaty shirt, Emma accidentally oxidizes the substance (causing it to flash-burn) before it’s doused by a quick-thinking Lu and Misha; both of whom begin to lose faith in their American skipper. The contentious crew reaches Alpha, where Emma then receives news that her husband Matt just suffered a stroke on the eve of her launch. With her family in crisis, Emma is about to turn tail and come home, but her hospitalized husband and teary-eyed daughter both urge her to go on with her flight to Mars. Emma tearfully and reluctantly agrees to go, leaving her family for three years.
Note: There is some question about the flight departing under the leadership of such a clearly compromised commander, but the issue isn’t satisfactorily resolved. In the days of Apollo, even exposure to measles got one bumped off a mission, yet Emma’s middle-aged husband nearly dying from a stroke doesn’t get her instantly removed from the flight. We see a backup commander waiting on site who could’ve (and should’ve), taken her place. Simple as that. Emma is an emotional wreck after hearing the news (understandably so), yet she is still expected to be 100% focused on her crew and mission? Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. This was the show’s first major turn into melodrama that made it increasingly difficult for me to believe in afterward. Individual viewer mileage may vary, of course, but for me, it hurt the show’s credibility. As a married man, all I can say is that if it were my wife who’d suffered the stroke? You couldn’t keep me from returning to Earth, no matter how much reassurance I got from her to continue with the flight.
With her husband and daughter’s tearful affirmations, Emma decides to go ahead with her three-year flight. She and her crew are on the lunar surface where they lovingly gaze at their Atlas spacecraft. They then board the Atlas and take off in 1/6th lunar gravity (requiring far less fuel and energy than an Earth-based launch), and are soon bound for Mars. Once en route, they activate a centrifuge on the ship, which spins the crew and medical areas, giving a simulated gravity for the long flight ahead.
Note: The future seen in “Away” is maddeningly vague at times; suggesting near-miraculous advances in some areas, while remaining very early 21st century in others. We see recognizable iPhones, as well as internal combustion cars and dirt bikes. I was wowed by the depiction of Moonbase Alpha (trying not to giggle when I type that) with its giant launch towers, and impressive infrastructure. What’s weird to me is that very little is made of the fact that there is this highly advanced city on the moon in this nonspecific era; how long did Alpha take to build, and just what year is this, anyway? It took well over a decade to finish the International Space Station. I get that the show is deliberately eschewing specific dates (‘it ain’t about the futuristic hardware, folks…it’s about the people’) which is fine and dandy, but if that’s the case, why set your series in space or in the future at all? Emma’s isolation ‘away’ could’ve just as easily been a long tour in Afghanistan…
As Emma struggles to keep her worry over her family in check, she also has to face lingering doubts from Misha and Lu, neither of whom fully trust Emma after her poor judgment during the earlier flash fire. Misha’s unequalled spaceflight experience, while a valuable asset, also makes him a very poor team player who cynically questions anyone else’s judgment. Soon, the curmudgeonly Misha is assigned to do a spacewalk with his commander in order to loosen a stuck solar panel that threatens their mission’s electrical power. It’s only when Emma risks life and limb during the spacewalk that Misha grudgingly comes to trust her. But lack of trust isn’t Misha’s only failing. During a routine exam, ship’s doctor Ram determines that Misha’s eyesight is so poor that he is nearing legal blindness. Misha has kept his worsening condition under wraps due to his fragile ego and fear of uselessness. The s#!t really hits the fan when the ship’s plumping fouls up, and they are forced to use emergency backup replacements to repair it. As ship’s engineer, it’s Misha’s task to fix the dauntingly complex system, but his poor vision means he will need Ram’s surgeon hands to do the actual work. The system is more or less repaired, but not at full capacity. The older Russian’s pride takes a beating, but the mission goes on. Misha also has trouble connecting with his bitter daughter on Earth, who blames him for being an absentee dad during critical times in her life, such as when her mother died. To soften his image a tad, we see Misha putting on a Christmas puppet show for his grandkids from space.
Note: It’s very difficult to believe that Misha could’ve made it past the crew simulations-phase of the Atlas program. He clearly has major issues with authority, and his failing ‘space blindness’ should’ve been caught a lot sooner than en route to Mars. His memorization of the eye chart (a trick also seen in the movie “Space Cowboys”) could’ve been easily undone by simply bringing up a new eye chart display for each eye exam. While actor Mark Ivanir plays Misha with great skill and humanity, he comes off like a Russian version of the ‘Quint’ character from “JAWS”; a cynical, ego-driven malcontent. While such a character is good for dramatics, he is precisely the “wrong stuff” for a long-duration, heavily interdependent mission to Mars.
We also get to know Misha’s sole friend and confidant; the secretive Chinese crew member, Lu Wang. Played with great understatement by Vivian Wu, Lu has her own struggles as well. Stuck in a loveless marriage (but with a son she is fiercely protective of) Lu is a closeted lesbian, something that is gravely taboo in her culture. Using her marriage as cover, her sexuality was never suspected until after she was assigned to the Atlas crew.
During her training, Lu became intimate with a free-spirited ground controller named Mei, who taught her English as well as how to live a little. Mei is the one true love in Lu’s otherwise austere existence. When the Chinese government gets wind of their relationship (via monitoring of their personal communiques), Mei is removed from her role as Mission Capcom, and replaced with a swaggering American jerk named Jack (Martin Cummins), who indelicately outs Lu to her colleagues during a virtual poker game with the three male astronauts. Sadly, justice isn’t done to Lu and Mei’s storyline in the first season, though Emma and the crew do manage to arrange a clandestine phone call (through unofficial channels) for Lu to sneak past her government and reconnect with Mei once more. Later, the Chinese government insists that Lu keep her gold-plated visor down during the crew’s first photo together on the surface of Mars, as a symbol of solidarity with her communist government (China’s much more capitalist these days, but sure…). A sympathetic Emma reminds Lu that she has the leverage to insist that Mei get reinstated as her ‘price’ for putting her faceplate down…
Note: That Lu keeps her sexuality such a guarded secret reminded me of real-life astronaut (and first American woman in space) Dr. Sally Ride, who was only publicly revealed as gay around the time of her death in 2012. Dr. Ride was a brilliant pioneer who inspired many young women to consider careers in space after her historic space shuttle flight in 1983. Her sexuality, while hardly considered consequential these days, could easily have been a career-killer 37 years ago. Having the character of Lu hail from conservative China (where state-sponsored persecution of LBTQ persons is far worse than here in the west) was a way for the series to connect in some way with the real-life story of Dr. Ride.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the melodrama is going full-throttle (literally) as Matt makes a slow, post-stroke recovery at a local rehab center, where he feels he’s losing touch (and control) over his daughter, Alexis. The teen resents her mother’s being away from Earth and engages in the common teenage ritual of sneaking out of the house at night. She also takes up the dangerous hobby of learning to ride dirt bikes with a nice, sensitive boy named Isaac (Adam Irigoyen). In no time at all, Alexis and Isaac are an item, while frustrated dad Matt watches from his wheelchair. There is also the character of Melissa (Monique Gabriela Curnen), who is Emma’s ground ‘backup’; agreeing to look after both Matt and Alexis, while taking care of her own developmentally-disabled daughter Cassie (Felicia Patti) as a single mother (!). That’s enough drama for a whole series, let alone a subplot.
The teen romance is increasingly saccharine (good-boy Isaac sneaks Alexis out to a midnight mass), while Matt’s loss of control (of both body and daughter) are telegraphed metaphors for watching one’s kids grow up. It’s during these scenes that the show’s pace slows to a crawl and begins to feel like so many other domestic dramas. Of course, it’s always a good idea to ground a sci-fi series with relatable human characters, but there’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking about the earthbound stories of “Away.” The teary-eyed cliches are often delivered with sledgehammer subtlety, too. Between the teen romance, dad coping with a stroke and Melissa raising Cassie, all that’s missing is a dead goldfish and little Timmy trapped in a well. After awhile, “Away” begins to feel like a Hallmark Channel TV-movie with a spaceship.
Note: The saving graces of these earthbound family drama scenes are the actors; Josh Charles (“Dead Poets Society”) and Talitha Elania Bateman are strong together, and have real father-daughter chemistry, despite the hoary cliches thrown at them like so many meteorites.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of angst on the ship as well, as we delve deeper into the backgrounds of botanist Kwesi and ship’s pilot/doctor Ram. Kwesi was orphaned in Ghana as a little boy and raised by British parents of Jewish faith. Kwesi prays a lot, and dreams of a garden on the barren, cold desert plains of Mars, per the wishes of his late adoptive gardener father. In one particularly disturbing scene, Kwesi sees all the skin on the heel of his foot silently peel off in zero gravity (!). Dr. Ram assures him it’s just normal atrophy one might experience in space (um, yeah, right). That Kwesi’s ‘atrophied’ heel just peels off and floats away on its own doesn’t seem particularly realistic, considering the living areas of the Atlas have simulated gravity while in flight, which should’ve curtailed such degeneration. The lost skin on Kwesi’s foot is never dealt with again, either. Will it grow back before their descent to Mars? Is the area anesthetized somehow, or does it just hurt like hell whenever his foot touches a bulkhead by accident?
Note: The details of micro gravity are well-executed overall, especially for a TV (Netflix) budget. I was very impressed with how the actors pantomimed the lower gravity of the moon with their steps, and even how the visual effects depicted liquids flowing slower than they would on Earth. That said, once they’re on the Atlas spacecraft en route to Mars, the gravity situation seems a little bit inconsistent. Sometimes they seem to be in full gravity (the centrifuge would have to be spinning quite a bit faster than we see in the exterior shots), and other times we see them gracefully floating about the cabin. I realize the artificial gravity doesn’t extend to the entire ship, but even in the null-gravity areas, we still sometimes see the crews’ feet touching the floors, as well as tears falling down their cheeks (tears in microgravity pool at the center of the eye and blob outward–they don’t run down cheeks). Nits aside, it’s refreshing to see gravitational differences dealt with to any degree, rather than completely ignored, as they often are in most sci-fi movies and TV shows.
Dr. Ram Arya’s story is equally sad, of course (because this show is all about the tragic backstories). Turns out Ram had typhus as a young child in India, and his beloved older brother took care of him, until he too, became ill and died. It’s early in the mission that Ram inexplicably goes into a psychotic rampage during a bout with mononucleosis/Epstein-Barr (full disclosure; I had mono as a kid; it didn’t make me psychotic, just listless and fevered). Ram is also saddled with an inexplicable and downright stupid attraction to his commander, Emma, who’s made it crystal-clear she is very much in love with her husband Matt. Why Ram even feels a need to voice this latent attraction to his superior officer during a vitally important spacewalk together is just plain dumb. In his ‘confession’ to Emma, Ram comes off as creepy and downright sexually harassing. Emma has never shown even the slightest hint of attraction to Ram, so his admission feels even more bizarre (especially during a critical mission to salvage the ship’s remaining potable water). Of all the characters, I’d say Ram’s story is by far the weakest and least convincing.
Note: I have so many problems with Ram’s inexplicable ‘thing’ for his commanding officer. Once again, the question of professionalism comes up; how did Ram and this dysfunctional group of space misfits ever make it through advanced training together with such serious personality defects? Ram’s creepy attraction to his happily married skipper feels both out of the blue and wildly inappropriate, especially in the #MeToo era. Seriously, what in fresh hell were the writers thinking?
An unmanned Atlas resupply ship, which was supposed to arrive just ahead of the crew at Mars, goes silent during atmospheric entry. Worried that their vital supplies have burned up, Lu and Misha devise a plan to use a nearby automated Mars rover’s still-working seismometer to detect the sonic booms of the silent supply ship’s entry into the Martian atmosphere. They hear the faint sonic booms, and the nervous crew takes it on faith that their resupply ship has safely landed ahead of them. They make preparations for landing…
The crew patches up their various issues, both mechanical and personal, just in time for their rendezvous with Mars, which will be watched by both their loved ones in Mission Control and the world at large. Their Atlas spacecraft makes its fiery descent through the thin Martian atmosphere and they soon touch down. On Mars, they locate the resupply ship, safely waiting for them within walking distance. Misha’s poor vision can only makes out colorful blurs, but he and Lu take in the scenery together. Kwesi makes plans to grow his garden. The crew then take their group photo on the Martian surface, but Lu’s gold-plated helmet visor is up, since the Chinese government predictably reneged on their deal with her.
The End (of Season One).
Summing It Up.
Teasing of a Mars adventure TV series, what “Away” really delivers is a slow paced, predictable, somewhat maudlin family drama with a space-adventure element to it. Yes, it’s still science fiction solely for the reason that a manned Mars mission has yet to happen, but the thrill of actually going to Mars takes a backseat to loads of earthbound melodrama as well as the bad behavior of some very unprofessional astronauts (looking at you, Misha and Ram…). While the performances are uniformly sound, some of the characters are a bit too unlikable for me to fully invest my emotions (I had a similar problem with Netflix’s far worse sci-fi series “Another Life”, which is inexplicably getting a second season). For a series that is championing character drama over outer space spectacle, this is a problem.
There is also the questionable need of spending so much screen time getting to Mars; we’ve already seen that story with Hulu’s aforementioned “The First” (2018) as well as Science Channel’s “Race to Mars” (2007). Personally, I much prefer the sadly short-lived, two season National Geographic series “Mars” (2016-2018), which saw its “Daedalus” crew arriving at Mars in the very first episode, and followed the much more dramatic and compelling work of setting up a whole new life on the Red Planet as permanent colonists, not just visitors. That story also had a very strong female lead with singer/actress Jihae as Hanna Seung. Seung was the leader of an international colonizing effort which, after many setbacks, successfully gains a tenacious foothold on the inhospitable planet. The series still gave us its character’s backstories (mostly in flashbacks or dialogue) but the planet itself was as much an omnipresent character as any other, and for that reason, it much more effectively sated my sweet tooth for stories about the Red Planet. The voyage to Mars in this story feels less like an adventurous calling and more like a tedious, taxing, joyless chore whose ultimate aim is planting a few boots and taking selfies.
COVID-19 Safe Viewing.
The ten episodes of “Away” Season One are (of course) available for streaming on Netflix. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 193,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!