Science fiction is usually lumped in with fantasy and myth under the umbrella term “genre fiction,” encompassing those stories that feature devices and occurrences that do not happen in our world. An enchanted sword, a demigod, a craft capable of traveling faster than the speed of light — they mean different things, but they are all distant from our current reality.
But science fiction carries with it more plausibility than the other genres. At its core is the idea that its visions could be possible, with all of the wonder and terror that implies. With this in mind, “Mars,” a hybrid documentary/space opera from National Geographic executive produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, explores what it positions as an essential task for humanity — the pilgrimage to the red planet, both as a scripted story of intrepid explorers in 2033 and a documentary investigating where we currently stand in the quest to jump planets. By pairing fact with fiction, the program cannily makes literal the essential tension of science fiction, using the documentary and scripted elements to play off of and enhance each other. And though the hybrid isn’t quite seamless, “Mars” is a thought-provoking and visually stunning production, albeit one that isn’t exactly riveting. It’s a slow, considered exploration — but when you think about it, that’s probably what our journey to Mars should be like.
What drives this production, aside from pure curiosity about our near neighbor (just 140 million miles away!), is that colonizing Mars might be necessary for human survival, given the pace at which we are either overpopulating or destroying Earth. “Mars” features interviews with such varied figures as SpaceX founder Elon Musk, “The Martian” author Andy Weir, and NASA planetary scientists and former astronauts, all of whom present a relatively unified and relatively radical front: Mars, as inhospitable and distant as it is, is what’s next. Current research and experimentation — including SpaceX’s failed launch last month and astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space — are explained and contextualized as stepping stones on the path to Mars exploration.
This goes to explain why, in the scripted segments, Mars is not just a destination but a desperately desired goal, a moral and philosophical quest. The fictional elements of “Mars” are so sentimental, they can become melodramatic — driven especially by the portentous voiceover narration of Captain Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), which tends to meander into metaphysical ruminations about the nature of humanity and the romance of tackling the unknown. At the same time, despite “Mars” rather measured pace, it’s hard to not feel excited by the launch and arrival, which almost immediately begins to present challenges to the crew. The introduction of each crew member’s backstory is a bit inorganic, but in a clever use of the show’s own structural device, the embarking crew members introduce themselves to the viewer via documentary-style “interviews.” In a nod to Kelly’s mission — conducted in tandem with his twin brother, who stayed on Earth — pop singer JiHAE, in her television debut, plays twin sisters, one on Mars and one at home at mission control.
“Mars” is a smart idea, and an educational one, too. But the factually dense production is not always able to accelerate from information to narrative. Probably, for some viewers, that won’t be a problem — space is pretty interesting all on its own, and experiencing a mission to Mars is a reward in and of itself. But though the miniseries presents an immersive visual landscape, it doesn’t quite follow through with the emotional landscape of the mission; much like its vision of our world in 2033, it’s sterile and utopian in a way that doesn’t quite feel like the messy, selfish planet we call home.
Indeed, in some ways, the most difficult-to-imagine element of this program is not that astronauts would find a way to set up camp on a cracked, arid desert 140 million miles away, but that just 17 years in the future, an international federation would band together for the common good, to send its best and brightest on a daring mission. As NASA repeatedly demonstrates, and the show underscores, what is lacking is not technological prowess or vision, but willpower. “Mars” falls short because it’s too optimistic about what humanity is capable of.