“Mars – Season 1 & 2” (2017-2018)
Created by: Ben Young Mason & Justin Wilkes
Directed by: David Yarovesky
Featuring: Ben Cotton, Alberto Ammann, Anamaria Marinca, Clémentine Poidatz Jihae and Sammi Rotibi
Released this month on to a DVD box set is the Nat Geo series “Mars – Season 1 & 2” (2017-2018) which attempts to blend documentary with a narrative story, one set in the future and one in the present which works in a very mixed way, but comes off as muddled as well as the feeling that there were far too many cooks in the kitchen to really illustrate something new and inventive.
In the year 2033, a crew of six astronauts launch from Florida on a journey to be the first people to set foot on Mars. During the descent into the Martian atmosphere, there is a malfunction with their spacecraft, the Daedalus. They land 75.3 kilometres away from their planned habitat. On Earth their progress is being monitored. In the second season, the story jumps ahead several years into the future after the Daedalus astronauts have built a full-fledged colony called Olympus Town. Having established mankind as an interplanetary species, Season 2 examines the impact that humans have on the Red Planet and the consequences the planet has on us.
Intermixed with the story are real-life interview footage from the present, of the crew, and their mission control; there are interviews with various public figures, including scientists and engineers, such as Elon Musk, Andy Weir, Robert Zubrin, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, about the difficulties that the crew might face on a journey to, and living on, Mars.
The six-part event series obscures a reasonably engrossing, science-star-studded documentary about future exploration of the Red Planet with a far less interesting scripted drama about Mars travel. It takes a while to settle into the structural and narrative rules of this show, by the end of the second episode, it becomes apparent that the scripted segments do little to enhance the documentary, whilst the documentary was just being utilized as an emotional cheat for the scripted story.
The 2016 documentary material initially isn’t revelatory, but it’s consistently informative and accompanied by reliable archival space program footage and future-skewing blueprints.
The documentary narrative is meant to be juxtaposed with the fictionalized story, but only exposes how limited it is. The first episode parallels that SpaceX rocket test with a Mars landing that presumably is only possible because of Musk’s advancements, but while I found myself rooting for the SpaceX test, the fictional landing stirred up nothing for me. Similarly, in the second episode, I didn’t care at all about Sawyer’s life-and-death medical struggle — he’s introduced in rough shape in the premiere, so that’s not a spoiler — but Kelly’s actual mission and particularly the interviews with his young daughter Charlotte got me choked up.
There should be push and pull between the two segments. The 2016 stuff should add factual credibility to the 2033 speculation and the quick-cutting mixture of tense close-ups and reasonably decent special effects in the 2033 segments should add urgency to the 2016 parts. Instead, it’s a one-way street. The 2016 stuff delivers factual grounding, which is fine, but it’s also forced to humanize one-dimensional scripted characters, which ought not be the case. That’s what the writing is for.
The blending of scripted and non-scripted elements in Mars is supposed to be what sets it apart as innovative, but some viewers will remember that NatGeo initially approached its Killing franchise in the same way, with both talking heads and reenactments, neither completely successful. NatGeo subsequently figured out that adapting Bill O’Reilly’s series with scripts was the correct approach. I get that the producers of Mars didn’t want this event pigeon-holed as “another NatGeo docuseries,” but there’s much to be said for identifying what works and emphasizing it.
Novo Mundo: In 2033, the first human mission to Mars enters its atmosphere with the commander being injured saving the ship. In the present, SpaceX is attempting to land the world’s first reusable rocket.
Grounded: The Daedalus crew battles harsh Martian terrain to reach base camp. Command changes with the death of the original commander. In reality, NASA Astronaut Scott Kellyundergoes a mission on the International Space Station, which will be the longest number of continuous days a human has spent in space.
Pressure Drop: In 2033, the Daedalus crew struggles to find permanent shelter, which hinges on locating a water source. Currently, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos partner to launch an orbiter.
Power: In 2037, four years after Mars colonization, a massive electrical storm threatens the outpost. In reality, Antarctica serves as a parallel for remote human settlement.
Darkest Days: In 2037, 8 weeks into the dust storm, the colony is on lockdown. Psychological pressure takes its toll as the crew is trapped in the habitat. The dust storm is in its 2nd month and the base commander has to ration power. The temperature in the habitat has dropped and the doctor is checking all crew members. A botanist who loses his grip with reality, due to the decimation of his crops and the disintegration of his marriage, opens an airlock killing himself and several others. In 2016, NASA performed the simulation “HI-SEAS MISSION” in Mauna Loa, Hawaii to test the effects of isolation and the psychology of a crew living closely together for a period of 12 months.
Crossroads: In 2037, a devastating tragedy in the colony forces everyone to question the mission. On Earth an upcoming statement (presumably about the mission ending), results instead with an announcement of the discovery of life on Mars. In the present, SpaceX attempts another pioneering launch.
We are not alone: It is April 2042, five years after “Crossroads”. Terraforming of Mars has started with the arrival of a group of highly skilled astronauts/miners working for a for-profit corporation called Lukrum specializing in natural-resource extraction. The people at Lukrum’s base request water and know Commander Hana Seung of Olympus Town can’t say no. Dr. Amelie Durand plans to go back to Earth. In the real-world footage, the episode shows many people, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Andy Weir, Elon Musk and Kim Stanley Robinson talking about capitalist pursuits on Earth of Arctic oil.
Worlds Apart: In May 2042, Lukrum finds water on Mars and Marta Kamen demands to study it, before Lukrum can damage any potential life living therein. Dr. Amelie Durand finds out she’s pregnant, maybe ending her plans to go back to earth. Hana Seung and her sister Joon Seung are reunited, but not in the way they had hoped for.
Darkness Falls: By August 2042, Amelie and Javier have found out that they are having a girl. A solar flare strikes Mars, knocking out power and communications to both Olympus Town and Lukrum. Marta was outside looking for life, and becomes stranded as a result of the power loss, putting her life in extreme jeopardy. Commander Seung is distracted by her grief regarding a recent personal tragedy.
Contagion: Twelve hours after finding Marta, a mysterious illness kills one person in Olympus Town and makes half of Lukrum sick. Before asking the Chinese government for help, IMSF and Lukrum think of public relations to the news of a new disease on Mars. Not one to wait, Cmdr. Seung calls the Chinese orbiting space station asking for help for medication, which later arrives and prevents any more fatalities both in Olympus Town and with Lukrum. Lt.Cmdr. Mike Glenn, 2nd in command, questions Seung and asks the IMSF to be in charge of Olympus Town.
Power Play: By November 2042, Lt.Cmdr. Glenn’s request to be in charge of Olympus Town is denied by the IMSF. Lukrum and Russia make a backroom deal and the IMSF are powerless. Hana Seung and Robert Foucault search for water, and Robert tells Hana he is quitting Olympus Town to work for Lukrum. Both try to kindle a budding relationship, which fails as Hana is devoted to the mission. Glenn cuts power to Lukrum after exceeding the power agreement, unknowingly jeopardizing the entire Lukrum base. When Cmdr. Seung later finds out, Lt.Cmdr. Glenn is confined to his quarters. Amelie later goes into premature labor two months early and gives birth.
The Shakeup: By December 2042, Lukrum uses an underground explosion to succeed finding liquid water but this action also causes quakes. Lukrum colony gets hit worst with several dead, including their commander who searched the wrecked station for survivors and was asphyxiated when his spacesuit was damaged. On Earth Lukrum’s CEO tries to downplay the cause of the quake and buys his way into IMSF, only to get stumped by IMSF director Richardson who hands the show to Olympus Town where Seung reveals the truth about the quake and Amelie and Javier present their baby, Gabriella Delgado Durand, to the audience on Earth. In the final scene three years later in May of 2045, the team looks at the first cloud on a satellite image and celebrates evidence of their efforts in terraforming Mars.