To promote its upcoming new miniseries Mars, the National Geographic Channel convinced its associated magazine to print a Mars-focused issue, and it set up a VR-Mars outpost in the middle of New York City. For the channel, the miniseries is more than just a new show; it’s part of an effort to rebrand itself as a source of serious, premium, science-focused content.
So, while the series’ focus is a fictional drama about the Earth’s first attempt at colonizing Mars, a strong effort has been made to be as accurate and realistic as possible. Fictional segments are mixed in with documentary footage from the present day, with experts talking about what it would take to get people to the red planet. The results make for decent TV, but suffer when compared to the recent film The Martian.
A quest for accuracy
In introducing Mars to the New York media, National Geographic gave more time to the program’s scientific advisors than it did to the cast. And said advisors were an impressive bunch, including former astronauts, present astronomers, and a professor of aerospace engineering. Their job, as they described it, wasn’t just to give scripts a quick sanity check; it was to make sure that everything was accurate.
And not just scientific accuracy, although the show gets things like Mars’ thin atmosphere and the communication time lag between planets right. But Mars’ advisors also wanted to show that when things go wrong on the mission, the fictional crew responds like real astronauts by falling back on procedures and checklists instead of trying to think up a solution on the spot (this was mentioned to the media by one of the show’s advisors, former astronaut Mae Jemison).
For the most part, this authenticity works, at least in Mars‘ initial episode. But a sort of overarching unrealism pervades the work. When asked about whether they thought it was likely we’d land a human on Mars in the 2030s, every single member of the scientific advisory panel raised their hand to indicate yes. And several spent time during the ensuing discussion pointing out that we have the technology needed to get there already.
Within the Ars brain trust there’s considerable skepticism that anything of the sort is going to happen without a radical change in NASA funding and culture, the trajectory of commercial spaceflight, or both. And this series isn’t just pre-supposing a manned mission; it’s sending colonists. So, the basic premise of Mars seems to be a stretch.
Promotion of that premise extends to Mars‘ documentary portions as well. The head of the Mars Society, dedicated to sending people there, gets a lot of air time. So does Elon Musk, who’s gradually filling in the details on his plans for putting people on the red planet in a similar time frame (we also felt that was unrealistic). In fact, Musk and SpaceX get so much screen time that I was afraid Mars would edge into an infomercial for the company. That fear vanished when it becomes clear that the show’s illustration for how doing space is hard are all instances of Musk’s hardware exploding.
So, accurate as it may be, Mars‘ basic premise requires either suspension of disbelief or some high-power optimism.
Drama vs. The Martian
But plausible premises and technical accuracy only get you so far (they mostly help you avoid enraging the most knowledgeable segment of your audience). Pulling viewers in for a multi-hour series requires good storytelling, a building and releasing of tension. In other words, drama.
In this regard, the timing of the series is unfortunate. While Ron Howard (Mars’ executive producer) can do space drama as well as anyone, the world has just been treated to a fantastic drama set on the red planet with The Martian. And The Martian didn’t have to deal with contingency plans and procedures, given that the whole scenario in the movie was way beyond anything that could have been planned for. It made for great drama.
Can Mars, with its large crew and dedication to realistic space missions, match The Martian? Well, it tries. Things go wrong in the first episode, and they go wrong in a believable way (it all comes down to a faulty sensor). But the incident ends up raising all sorts of other questions about realism. Musk’s plan for getting to Mars involves a straight shot at the planet, slowed by braking in the atmosphere; there’s no gently entering Mars’ orbit.
Mars’ fictional astronauts apparently have the option of aborting their landing, which means they must have had the option at least of entering orbit. But then it turns out that they only have enough resources on the ship to support life for a few days at this point (more are pre-positioned on the surface). This implies that aborting to orbit had a decent chance of being fatal or cutting in to a razor-thin margin of error. The life-support limitations then become a further source of drama once the astronauts reach the surface.
All of which raises questions about whether realism is being sacrificed to create drama.
None of which is to say that Mars is a bad show or that it won’t get better as the episodes progress. But the first episode is mixed. The drama at times seems forced, and the documentary and fictional sequences don’t mix together seamlessly. But there’s enough potential here that I’ll come back for episode two.
Mars premiers Sunday in Europe, and Monday in the US.