Mars – the miniseries

Jihae during a performance in 2010
Jihae during a performance in 2010

Warning. This review contains several spoilers about the miniseries “Mars”!

On December 18 the miniseries “Mars” ended.

“Mars” is a docudrama, in part a documentary about space programs with archive footage and interviews with people involved in various ways and in part a TV show that tells the story of the first manned expedition to Mars starting from 2033. The two parts are mixed so as to give a greater impression of likelihood to the future events, as if they were a continuation of those of the documentary part.

The miniseries, which consists of six episodes, is based on the book “How We’ll Live on Mars” by Stephen Petranek, a journalist who explained the possible development of the American space program and the possibility that humans could live on Mars by 2027. This idea is based on a series of factors which include scientific and technological developments but also economic ones because there are also private companies that are starting opening a real market in the space that includes trade and tourism.

Some mini-episodes published online on National Geographic’s website are a prequel titled “Before Mars” focused on Hana and Joon Seung, two twin sisters among the “Mars” protagonists. A new book that accompanies the miniseries titled “Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet” was published just after the broadcast of the first episode and was written by Ron Howard, “Mars” executive producer, and journalist David Leonard.

The cast of the science fiction part of “Mars” consists of:

  • Ben Cotton as Ben Sawyer
  • Jihae (photo ┬ęTrafficattic) as Hana and Joon Seung
  • Clementine Poidatz as Amelie Durand
  • Sammi Rotibi as Robert Foucault
  • Alberto Ammann as Javier Delgado
  • Anamaria Marinca as Marta Kamen
  • Olivier Martinez as Ed Grann

“Mars” begins alternating between 2016 and 2033. In the documentary footage of space missions are shown and especially interviews with people such as SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, X PRIZE Foundation founder Peter Diamandis, the author of the novel “The Martian” Andy Weir, aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin and astrophysicist and author of scientific papers Neil deGrasse Tyson. The science fiction show tells the arrival of the spaceship “Daedalus” with the first humans on Mars, not without difficulty.

The first episode immediately shows “Mars” merits and flaws. The interviews are interesting because they offer not only opinions but also the progress that SpaceX is making in the development of its rockets and its spacecraft directly from Elon Musk’s voice. The science fiction part unfortunately shows from the outset a tendency to dramatize the story and a plot that is supposed to be realistic but sometimes loses credibility.

The problem is at the moment of the spaceship Daedalus landing on Mars. Something’s wrong with the landing system and to activate an alternative circuit Commander Ben Sawyer needs to physically go get his hands into electronic systems, a very dangerous situation. In fact, the Daedalus lands but far from the target area and Sawyer gets injured.

Apparently, no one has prepared a plan in case of that type of emergency. There’s a base that was assembled by robotic systems but the only means of transport is a kind of mini-bus which is not designed to carry so many human beings. What’s more, Ben Sawyer’s medical problem can’t be treated on the spaceship. The situation forces the astronauts to travel on the mini-bus until it breaks down due to the excessive weight and to walk the rest of the way on foot with Sawyer on a makeshift stretcher.

In short, the first emergencies don’t make me think well of the competence of those who designed the equipment for the mission and especially those who had the task to think about possible contingencies and possible plans to address them. Not having from the beginning at least an adequate vehicle is a serious lack and in the event of an accident while traveling a wounded persone would have died since on the Daedalus there appear to be very limited medical equipment. It also appears that the spaceship that supported the astronauts’ lives for months exhausted its resources since everyone must leave immediately for the base camp and not only the persons needed to transport Sawyer.

This has as a short-term consequence Ben Sawyer’s death. Best to get some comfort with the fotage of American astronaut Scott Kelly’s one-year mission on the International Space Station, completed in March 2016. The data collected keep on being studied, also with exams after Kelly’s return to Earth, to understand the long-term effects of such a long period spent in microgravity. This helps to understand what would happen to humans on a long journey into deep space, for example to reach Mars.

One of the big problems for astronauts on Mars is the amount of radiation they’d be exposed to on a planet devoid of a magnetic field that could shield them. In general, the outdoor environmental conditions and their fluctuations make it difficult to build a habitat for humans. One solution is to exploit lava tubes, caves created by volcanic lava rocks, which would allow the astronauts to build habitats underground in conditions far more protected than on the surface.

Apparently, robotic systems have been able to build a base camp on the surface but haven’t been able to map the area to find lava tubes, possibly even before the Daedalus landing. This means that, even in an emergency, the astronauts must quickly find a lava tube to build what will be a habitat for them and for the next humans who will arrive in the next few years. Again the programming doesn’t seem to have been done with great competence.

The worst, however, comes in the fifth episode, in which the science fiction part is set in 2037. The theme of the possible negative psychological reactions of a human being so far away from Earth is treated showing the problems of agronomist Paul Richardson, who is developing plants that can thrive on Mars in the human habitat’s greenhouse.

The absurd thing is that the greenhouse has a door that opens directly to the outside. That’s not just simple incompetence but criminal negligence because even under normal conditions such a situation would be very dangerous, especially because the greenhouse is not isolated but connected to a part of the habitat. When Paul Richardson totally loses it and opens the door a disaster happens. That’s a total nonsense for the sole purpose of creating a dramatic moment.

These are just the worst plot holes but there are others and it’s a shame because “Mars” had really a great potential to create a realistic science fiction story. The final twist is more believable than the rest of the story and shows that there was room for a story with sense-of-wonder and no nonsense.

Overall, “Mars” seems a wasted opportunity because of a script often very poor of the science fiction part only in part compensated by an interesting documentary part. It was conceived as a miniseries so it does not need to go on but if National Geographic wanted to continue it I hope they’ll think it better.

2 Comments


  1. While I agree with a few of the negative plot comments in this article, I still found the miniseries to be quite good. I think the author would have a different opinion if the show was 12 not 6 episodes long. Thus giving the writers ample time to draw out the challenges they had to face.
    Let’s face it when u have only 6 episodes it’s hard to be as realistic and scientific as this show needed to be.

    Reply

    1. It’s certainly possible: 6 episodes are not much for such a big story, especially if a part is used for the documentary.

      Reply

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