On ‘Mars’ se­ries, a mis­sion un­folds as drama, doc­u­men­tary

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LIFE - By Frazier Moore AP Tele­vi­sion Writer

The brave Daedalus crew of six is trav­el­ing to Mars.

Their trip will take months. But once they land, their plan isn’t to grab some rocks and hurry back to Earth. They aim to make Mars home.

Such is the saga of “Mars,” an in­no­va­tive hy­brid of drama and doc­u­men­tary pre­mier­ing Mon­day at 9 p.m. EST on the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic chan­nel (with the first of its six weekly hours now avail­able for free stream­ing ).

The voy­age takes place in 2033, but don’t take this saga as fu­tur­is­tic pie-in-thesky. It’s worth not­ing that 2033 is just 17 years away and that, for many view­ers, 1999 — just 17 years ago — seems pretty re­cent.

Be­sides, this sci-fi odyssey is grounded in hard facts and sci­en­tific rigor, as re­flected in the un­scripted doc­u­men­tary sec­tions clearly la­beled “2016.”

“Get­ting to Mars will be risky, dan­ger­ous, un­com­fort­able, but it’ll be the great­est ad­ven­ture ever in hu­man his­tory,” says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, among many far­sighted “big thinkers” heard from in the se­ries who thinks there’s money as well as glory to be found in Mars col­o­niza­tion.

But this is more than man­i­fest des­tiny.

Andy Weir, whose novel “The Mar­tian” in­spired the 2015 film of the same name, voices an even more com­pelling mo­ti­va­tion: hedg­ing earthly bets. “We need to go to Mars be­cause it pro­tects us from ex­tinc­tion,” he de­clares.

“Mars” has brought to­gether a num­ber of col­lab­o­ra­tors. Be­sides its sci­en­tific con­sul­tants, the se­ries claims direc­tor Ever­ardo Gout, Justin Wilkes as showrun­ner and, among his fel­low ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, Os­car-win­ning Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

How in the world did the project come to­gether? Ini­tially, from con­ver­sa­tions be­tween var­i­ous par­ties who each pro­posed “Let’s do Mars,” ac­cord­ing to Grazer, “though at first we didn’t re­ally know what we were do­ing. ‘Mars’ im­plies so much: It ig­nited some dream in each of us.”

“The se­ries was a bal­anc­ing act,” says Howard. “It had a doc­u­men­tary com­po­nent, which is al­ways a ques­tion mark at the be­gin­ning. Then came fully script­ing and shoot­ing the drama, which was meant to take the ideas we were learn­ing and per­son­al­iz­ing them. We wanted to be as cin­e­matic and propul­sive as we could be, but verisimil­i­tude was a ground­ing prin­ci­ple and an obli­ga­tion.”

“It’s in the zeit­geist right now,” says Wilkes. “There’s a lot of peo­ple think­ing about Mars, and a lot of en­gi­neer­ing and sci­ence be­ing put into it, both on the pri­vate in­dus­try side and the pub­lic side.” Cut to 2033. “Some of us, if not all of us, will al­most cer­tainly die on this mis­sion,” Ben Sawyer, Daedalus mis­sion com­man­der, re­minds his crew.

This may sound gloomy, but Ben Cot­ton, who plays Sawyer, hails as­tro­nauts as in­her­ently up­beat.

“It was in­ter­est­ing to jump into that per­spec­tive,” he says, “be­cause as an ac­tor you get trained to go to­ward the tur­moil, the darker end of things. It was cool to be in that pos­i­tive space.”

“As­tro­nauts are pas­sion­ate, but they’re not crazy,” adds se­ries con­sul­tant Mae C. Jemi­son, a for­mer NASA as­tro­naut who flew on the Space Shut­tle En­deav­our in 1992. “They’re dream­ers and have great imag­i­na­tions, but at the same time they’re very prac­ti­cal.”

Jemi­son (to whom the pro­duc­ers paid homage by chris­ten­ing the Daedalus com­puter sys­tem the Mars An­a­lytic Ex­ecu­tor, or MAE) worked with pro­duc­ers, writ­ers and cast to share her out-of-this-world ex­pe­ri­ence. One tip: In the heat of the mo­ment, don’t get hot and both­ered.

“When you’re work­ing an emer­gency, that’s when you get CALMER,” she ad­vises. “If you shout over each other you’re dead, be­cause you don’t know what’s go­ing on.”

As scripted, the mis­sion (with Moroc­can desert por­tray­ing Mars’ sur­face) is jammed with emer­gen­cies and ca­su­al­ties.

“But in the se­ries we are tak­ing an over­all op­ti­mistic view that this is some­thing that hu­man­ity can do, should do, is do­ing and will do,” says Wilkes. “It’s the equiv­a­lent of the first Jamestown colony. His­tory is re­peat­ing it­self. It might not be easy and it might not be pretty, but we’re not giv­ing up.”

Wilkes re­it­er­ates a se­ries mes­sage: Mother Earth won’t sup­port us for­ever.

“In terms of the long game,” Wilkes says, “it seems like a pretty good bet that we should try to be­come in­ter­plan­e­tary. But in the process maybe we’ll also find a way to get along with each other to do what we need to do on this planet.”

Cyn­ics might say that hu­mans, well on our way to trash­ing Earth, sim­ply mean to ditch it for a new world to waste. This se­ries begs to dif­fer.

“It’s not that we’re just try­ing to es­cape our prob­lems here,” says Wilkes. “We’re try­ing to use a Mars mis­sion as a way of fix­ing our in­ter­re­la­tion­ships on Earth.”

Once upon a time, putting a man on the moon gal­va­nized the na­tion. But when the “space race” was “won,” Amer­i­cans lost in­ter­est.

To­day, an en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and bound­less vi­sion could re­vive a world­wide ap­petite for space travel.

“I think pop­u­lar opin­ion may be shift­ing,” says Howard. “I hope our show can help.”


Ben Cot­ton as Ben Sawyer in a scene from “Mars.”

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