Per Ardua Ad Astra: National Geographic’s New Docudrama Heads to Mars

Mars, which premiered this week on the National Geographic channel, is, much like the ship it’s about, something of an experiment. It’s a docudrama, but one with far more of a rigid distinction between the two elements than normal. In 2033, the scripted series follows the crew of the Daedalus, the first Mars mission and one beset with problems from the moment they arrive. In 2016, it operates as a series of documentary-style talking head interviews with actual scientists working to make the trip feasible.

It’s a difficult line to walk, and its mixing of fact and fiction might leave a surprisingly sour taste in the mouth in the same week that the Oxford English Dictionary formally recognised “post-truth” as their Word of the Year. However, with mild tonal issues aside, the show both makes its unique format work and is exactly what you might be most in need of right now: a story about people doing something almost impossible and (probably) surviving.

The 2016 stuff is easiest to talk about because it’s pretty much off-the-peg science, in the best possible way: this is really interesting stuff and there isn’t a bad interview on the show. Elon Musk, The Martian author Andy Weir, and the Eternal Guardian of Science himself, Neil deGrasse Tyson, are all particularly good value, and their interviews are cut through with actual footage of rocket tests.

This first episode, “Novo Mundo,” is focused on the pressures of getting Daedalus to Mars and surviving the landed intact, so we get a detailed look at SpaceX’s attempts to land a pre-launched rocket. If you’re a space fan there won’t be much new for you here conceptually, but regardless it’s still thrilling, heart-in-mouth stuff. In addition, the footage of SpaceX mission control, either horrified or in tears as another rocket comes apart, is surprisingly visceral. These aren’t the steely-eyed missile men of the Cold War, nor should they be. Men, women, people of multiple ages and ethnicities are all united in the desperate urge to get one of these rockets working. As Musk says, there’s a thousand ways rockets can fail and only one where they succeed. This episode shows just how much work goes into achieving that success.

Over in the scripted drama side of the show, that tiny margin for success drives the story. The Daedalus has a multinational crew and has been put together by a distinctly Musk-esque venture capitalist intent on getting us to the Red Planet to stay. They have a pre-assembled base camp, outrigger automated production facilities, and a fourteen-storey-tall ship designed to get them there safely.

It doesn’t.

National Geographic Mars docudrama series

The multi-national crew are mostly, so far, essayed. Nigerian Roboticist Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi) is an early standout, as is Russian exobiologist Marta Karen, played by Anamaria Marinca. Their good-natured banter feels natural and unforced. It’s also very funny, which I suspect means at least one of them won’t make it out of the show alive. Incidentally, Marinca played a very similar role in the very similar Europa Report (which, if you’ve not seen, you really should).

However, this episode focuses on American Mission Commander Ben Sawyer. Played by Ben Cotton, who has done consistently excellent work on Stargate Atlantis, two BSG TV movies, The 100, and elsewhere, Sawyer is the show’s fatalistic heart. He comes across like a mildly grimdark Neil Armstrong—a calm, severe man who fully expects not all of them to make it home and seems on some level to revel in that stark reality.

Cotton is great in the role, because Cotton is one of those character actors who is always great, but Sawyer as a character is the show’s single bum note so far. He’s the mouthpiece for Musk’s own belief that not everyone on the Mars mission will make it back, and that’s fair enough, but “Novo Mundo” presents this as more of a target for the character rather than a grim possibility. He seems to welcome the possibility of a glorious death out past the red line of human knowledge, and, based on this episode, he’s going to get it. It’s Sawyer who volunteers to make a last-second circuit change, and that’s fair enough: He’s the boss, so he’s the first one through the door.

But he’s injured in the process, and that’s where the problems start. It’s just about plausible that his suit would be damaged enough for his telemetry readings to not alert mission control to the injury. It’s equally plausible that, under gravity for the first time in months and riding an adrenaline wave, his medical officer wouldn’t diagnose the injury straight away.

But then Sawyer hides the injury. Badly, because he has a broken rib and possibly punctured lung, and those are hard to conceal. He’s wincing, moving slowly, coughing up blood, and (as we see in the flash-forward at the start) he ends up having to be carried.

This is the one point where the show comes apart. It neatly sets up the fact Daedalus overshoots its mark, the Apollo 13-esque ways they figure out how to get the crew to a new standby base camp, and the way the crew and the ground team work together. That’s all great, and the ticking clock of Daedalus’ limited air supply gives the proceedings welcome urgency.

But there’s no satisfactory reason for Sawyer to conceal his wounds beyond fatalistic machismo. As presented here, he’s one step away from a pressure-suited martyr, sacrificing his life so he can die on the Red Planet, not so that he can live there and come back. It’s a sour note that sits badly with the rest of the crew and feels, here at least, like manufactured drama—which, given the risky nature of the technology and unprecedented size off the mission, just seems unnecessary.

That being said, Mars is absolutely worth your time. It does interesting things with a troubled format, looks gorgeous, and fundamentally, it’s optimistic. We’re going to travel off-world. We’re going to come back once we have, and then go further. Per ardua ad astra is a powerful message and, as we circle the end of 2016, a necessary one, too.

Mars airs Mondays at 9 p.m. EST on National Geographic

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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