Failure To Launch

NatGeo's hybrid documentary/scripted miniseries 'Mars' is ambitious, but it fails in its mission to entertain while informing

Numbering around 7.4 billion and counting, Homo sapiens generally aren’t considered an endangered species. But National Geographic Channel’s new six-part miniseries Mars, which premiered last night, argues otherwise. Fleeing extinction is one of the main reasons to aspire to interplanetary exploration and colonization, since — it’s implied but never said — we’ve quite possibly fucked up Earth beyond recovery. (Congrats to us for being the only species smart enough — and stupid enough — to engineer our demise by destroying our own planet.)

Fusing a 2033 narrative about the first settler mission to Mars with present-day talking-head interviews, Mars is lavish, earnest, and innovative. And yet the debut installment never gets off the ground — partly because the miniseries never makes a convincing case for why interplanetary migration is necessary, and partly because the fictional story about the first astronauts to land on Mars is riddled with recycled twists and idiocies.

As National Geographic’s initial foray into prestige programming, Mars has collected enough scientists and thinkers in Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk, The Martian author Andy Weir, and other authorities to ensure that most viewers learn something new by the end of the hour. But here’s what Matt Damon’s The Martian took for granted that the miniseries doesn’t: Astronauts are some of the most intelligent people on earth. Mars’s pilot, on the other hand, has one of its main characters acting like a selfish and self-destructive moron by the episode’s end that trades in the show’s insights and seriousness of purpose for some cheap tension.

The Martian also understood that astronauts are people — emotional and idiosyncratic and wholly informed by their previous experiences. Mars’s gestures toward hard (i.e., nerdily detailed) sci-fi, like the jargon-filled dialogue and worship of technical problem-solving, seem to chase after that blockbuster’s audience. Disappointingly, then, the miniseries’s international team of six (played by Alberto Ammann, Ben Cotton, Anamaria Marinca, Clementine Poidatz, Sammi Rotibi, and musician Jihae, the latter as twin sisters — one in space, the other back at mission control) are barely distinguished from one another so far. If the astronauts built any sort of relationships with one another during the nine months it took them to fly from our “little blue dot” to the red planet — a span of time completely skipped over by the first episode — the characters don’t exhibit them at all.

Save for the eerily gorgeous production design, the 2033 half offers little to Mars’s raison d'être: to inspire. The miniseries is a boon to those who respond to its urgent-bordering-on-alarmist calls for exploration (“it’ll be the greatest adventure ever”) and the perseverance of the species at any cost. But as a stick-in-the-mud who’s long believed that much of NASA’s space cash (and nationalistic pride) would go a long way in improving life here on Earth, Mars doesn’t persuade me of the importance of its premise. It’s rather likely that, in being born on this planet, we’re uniquely evolved to survive only on this one — a scenario suggested by the cosmic radiation the miniseries so frequently mentions. Mars is at least honest that the chances of interplanetary colonization are vanishingly small. If a group of children out there is motivated by those tiny odds of success to save us all, the miniseries will have done its job. But until that happens, I won’t hold my breath.

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