OK Hous­ton, we have a prob­lem here

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‘‘ AND we have ig­ni­tion for the first hu­man ex­pe­di­tion to the planet Mars. God speed Terra Nova!’’ So says the ju­bi­lant, ev­i­dently still re­li­gious, NASA- style ground con­trol voice at the be­gin­ning of this faux doc­u­men­tary se­ries, set in 2029, about man ( and wo­man) go­ing to Mars.

The mis­sion will take about months, there and back.

But de­spite a lofty, doc­u­men­tary voice- over dur­ing the open­ing cred­its — ‘‘ Project Olym­pus is the cul­mi­na­tion of un­prece­dented col­lab­o­ra­tion by the In­ter­na­tional Mars Part­ner­ship’’ — the damned Chi­nese have launched a sim­i­lar mis­sion and, you guessed it, there’s a race to get there first.

This race, it turns out, has sent the poor blighters on the Terra Nova into deep space with faulty cir­cuit boards, rushed through to make sure the In­ter­na­tional Mars Part­ner­ship beats the Chi­nese to it. Yeah, right.

While the spe­cial ef­fects are mod­er­ately cool and the per­for­mances by the trou­bled ci­phers who make up the crew of the Terra Nova are ad­e­quate, it’s the writ­ing by hus­band and wife team Ju­dith and Garfield ReevesStevens that brings the whole thing down faster than space junk over West­ern Aus­tralia.

Events are so pre­dictable as to be laugh­able. There are clas­sic sci- fi ref­er­ences, some in­ten­tional, some seem­ingly not.

At the first shared meal, for ex­am­ple, the jovi­al­ity is so forced, so much a re­lief from the pre­ced­ing 10 or so min­utes of phony baloney space jive (‘‘ de­tach­ing Al­pha 1, de­tach­ing Al­pha 2’’), that you can’t help but ex­pect some­one to feel ill and have an alien burst out of their guts.


In­stead, in ab­so­lutely the first sign that tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced an iota in 30 years, a crew mem­ber pro­duces a tiny data stick that con­tains the real 1950 movie Rock­et­ship X- M, in which as­tro­nauts in­clud­ing Lloyd Bridges blast off for the moon.

Due to on­board mal­func­tions, Bridges and crew end up on Mars in­stead. As you do.

Our crew watches in­tently. ‘‘ This is fan­tas­tic,’’ says the to­ken Rus­sian. ‘‘ It’s so bad it’s ac­tu­ally bril­liant.’’

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Race to Mars, which is just plain lousy. There’s an un­in­ten­tional laugh- out- loud coda to the Rock­et­ship X- M scenes when the Terra Nova is con­tacted by some­one called Glenn Hartwell, ad­min­is­tra­tor In­ter­na­tional Space De­vel­op­ment Agency ( USA), whose rigidly up­stand­ing grey quiff and stu­pe­fied de­meanour in­stantly re­call Bridges full of sniffed glue in Fly­ing High.

The crew takes turns fil­ing te­dious videos, ex­pos­i­tory waf­fle termed ‘‘ psy­che self- eval­u­a­tions’’ to cam­era, crises come and go, and the French guy turns out to be a bit of a bad­die. You could tell he was go­ing to, be­cause he has a fa­cial scar.

Ian Cuth­bert­son

Make ’ em laugh: Scene from Race to Mars

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