I have a love-hate relationship with National Geographic’s TV series Mars. The series, which is in its second season, is doing a great job depicting a realistic effort to reach and colonize the red planet. Along with scientifically-accurate science and technology, the fictional story is interspersed with commentary with real scientists, engineers and Mars promoters telling us about the efforts being made to reach Mars and the things we still need to do… and why. It’s brave, it’s ambitious, and it’s worth seeing.
On the other hand…
Mars is a television show, made by a network that has to respond to ratings and sponsors in order to exist. Therefore, Mars is expected to be entertaining, even moreso than being informative and educational. And apparently, those who made this show don’t think there’s anything especially entertaining about exploring another planet in a realistic way. So, to make it entertaining, they’ve baked in unlikely coincidences and unnecessary melodrama to illustrate their thematic points.
Now, I’m not opposed to some drama, some interesting personalities and surprise twists. But the drama and twists they are using are mostly… stupid. Many of their characters act out some of the oldest of space exploration clichés, not befitting the supposed intelligence of the first humans sent to Mars. The rest of the clichés are also straight from the ages-old sci-fi drama handbook… the kind of gags common to shows like Star Trek but not to real-world exploration by top-of-the-line scientists and engineers; and they regularly happen at the exact moment to create crises.
I took note of this in season 1, where the storyline was regularly peppered with “surprises” like predictable malfunctions at horribly inconvenient moments (I know—it’s not as if a malfunction on Mars could happen at a convenient moment), human foibles putting others in mortal danger, lucky coincidences to save the expedition, and deaths that seem aimed at nothing more than shuffling character expectations. (I’m not going to spoil it with specifics; you get the picture.) And sure enough, in season 2, Mars has been following the same playbook, page by page.
The worst thing is, so many of those clichés and dramatic elements could have been used smartly, with some more intelligent and creative writing, and still create some great story moments. Mars’ creators clearly wanted to create a notable series, as the quality of the overall production and the top-notch acting demonstrates. But they could have put a lot more effort into the scripts and the depiction of the real issues and dangers involved in traveling to and developing another planet. For a serious SF series, this feels more like the recent reboot of Lost in Space.
Well, despite my complaints, I’ll continue to watch Mars, just as I watched the first season. After all, it’s pretty unique for a science fiction series. But that doesn’t mean I can’t wish for better… that Mars could be better.