With pulling up stakes looking pretty good to some people right now, National Geographic Channel's big new techno-colonial docudrama "Mars" has gained unexpected timeliness.
The six-part series, which premieres Monday, describes the campaign to settle humans on our nearest and most hospitable — yet still pretty inhospitable — planetary neighbor. This "Mars" is half aspirational documentary, half speculative fiction.
With Ron Howard ("Apollo 13") and Brian Grazer among the executive producers, it is not surprisingly a glossy, classy, Rolls-Royce of a production. Both the documentary footage and the staged footage set in 2033 smack of a generous budget; it's easy on the eyes. But though the alternating elements get equal time, they aren't equally interesting, and the series is engaging and frustrating by turns.
Although the fictional parts are arranged to be dramatic — a pioneer story, full of obstacles — the staged scenes on Mars and on Earth are oddly plodding and ponderous, pious and platitudinous. ("We dream. That's who we are. Down to our bones, our cells. … We crossed the oceans, we conquered the skies, and when there were no more frontiers on Earth, we launched ourselves among the stars.") I'm pretty sure there'll be jokes, practical and otherwise, on the first flight to Mars, and that some of them will be rude; it lasts seven months, after all.
The documentary passages are by far the more exciting, eccentric and fun. Among the contemporary, real-world commentators (in the two episodes available for review) are America's astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson; Scott Kelly, who spent a year in the International Space Station to test the effects of long-term space flight on the body; and mogul Elon Musk, whose SpaceX corporation is determined to make Mars habitable. Musk — who believes we need to become a "spacefaring" race because we're going to throw away this planet like a used tissue or be fried by the sun in about a billion years — is the apparent model for the series' fictional visionary entrepreneur, leading an international coalition of space agencies and private industry.
Like the settings, the young, international crew of the space ship Daedalus looks good — actors you'd be as likely to see on a Milan runway as on a Cape Canaveral gangway. There are no Scott Kellys among them — stocky, bald, bespectacled. They do their best to make their parts dimensional, but they are not given much to work with.
They are accompanied by a talking computer (Voice: British, female) that chimes in with warnings such as "Your battery power is at 2%" and "Recommend immediate manual replacement of faulty circuit." It seems to me that the humans make bad, if "heroic," decisions here, and that their space gear provides a shocking lack of redundancy and fail-safe systems. It is true that things go wrong; but things are interesting when they go right too. Science, engineering — I would have liked more of that. Where are the nerds?
But what's largely missing here is any sense that the enterprise might be exhilarating, mind-blowing, a kick — only important and dangerous. My favorite moment from what I've seen of the series is documentary footage of Kelly and two colleagues riding a capsule back to Earth from the space station, holding papers — papers! — in their hands, as if they might need to look something up, or assemble a shelf.
"As soon as you realize you're not going to die," Kelly says of re-entry, "it's the most fun you ever had." Of a mission to Mars, he says, "It will require more sacrifice, more radiation, more risk, more time away. I'd still do it, though."
Where: National Geographic Channel
When: 9 p.m. Monday