National Geographic’s documentary/drama hybrid Mars premieres tomorrow night, and if the pilot episode is any indication, fans of hard sci-fi will find a lot to like about it. The show begins with the very optimistic premise that in 2033, all the worlds’ space agencies have joined together with private space exploration companies to create the International Mars Science Foundation. We meet the crew of Daedalus, the first spaceship to form a colony on Mars. The captain gives the rest of the crew one last chance to back out. When none of them do, the rocket launches.
We cut back to 2016 for the documentary portion of the show. We hear from scientists why going to Mars is necessary for survival. If humans have two planets to live on, our chances of extinction are greatly reduced. We hear from SpaceX, whose stated goal, in addition to launching billion-dollar satellites for NASA, is to make humanity a multi-planet civilization.
In 2036, we hear the pre-launch interviews with the crew, where they basically echo the sentiments expressed by the real-life 2016 scientists. We then skip the long, presumably uneventful journey to Mars and watch the crew try to land. The thrusters go offline, and the captain has to hot-swap a few circuits to get them to work. Before we find out if he succeeds or not, the show cuts back to real-life 2016 where we learn that landing is really the hardest part. We have the technology to land a one-ton rover on the planet, but nothing heavier than that.
This is the pattern the show follows for the rest of the episode. The crew runs into a problem, and we cut back to 2016 to learn why it’s such a big problem. Then we cut back to 2033 to see how we’ve solved that problem in the future. Current scientists talk about setting up a basecamp ahead of time with machines that pull water out of the atmosphere, shelters where people can live and produce food and most importantly, 3-D printers that would allow the settlers to build what they need. That gives us the context we need to realize that it’s a huge setback when the crew overshoots their landing by a significant distance.
The mixing of documentary and sci-fi drama works very well and enhances both sections of the show. I get the feeling that neither section would hold up all that well on its own. The drama is a simple, standard space colonization story with very flat characters. What little we do learn about the crew of Daedalus is given to us in expository interviews. When faced with a crisis, they’re professional and competent and emotionless. They’re exactly who you would want to carry out a mission like this, but it doesn’t make for great drama.
The documentary, on the other hand, is very interesting and comprehensive. It gets you thinking about what it would take to get to Mars and instills a feeling of excitement that the real-life Mars mission isn’t that far away. But there isn’t much there. It’s all about things that are happening right now, and I don’t know that there’s enough of a story to support a full series or movie on its own. Also at times, it feels less like a documentary and more like a PR video for SpaceX.
But that’s the beauty of having the show be a hybrid like this. Both sections complement each other to create a compelling hour of television. Each part makes the other work. The documentary helps you understand the problems the future crew faces. Even if you don’t care about the characters, you understand what’s at stake; you appreciate the immensity of the challenge, which makes the fictional part of the show so much more exciting. Likewise, the drama lets us see exactly what all these scientists are building towards in the documentary segments. We’re shown where everything is going and are more invested in the work it takes to get there.
Mars combines a fascinating documentary with an exciting, if a little dry, sci-fi drama. It reminds me a little bit of Carl Sagan’s Contact, only focused on space colonization instead of aliens. It’s that kind of hard science fiction that you don’t see very often on TV or movies. I’d hope the characters get fleshed out a little more as the series goes on, but it almost doesn’t matter. The combination of modern science and a realistic picture of where it’s all headed is exciting enough that I’m on board for the next six weeks.