Sometimes a program is pulled in contradictory directions, whether by a flawed initial concept or the final edit, but Mars is the opposite: it’s two distinct screen forms trying to knit together as one. Commissioned by the National Geographic Channel, it combines a scripted, dramatic account of the efforts to colonise Mars for human habitation, intercut with contemporary expert interview and documentary footage illustrating the scientific demands and moral dilemmas that such a mission would face.
Beginning in 2037, the show’s first season, which aired in 2016, covered the initial expedition and the quest for survival the half dozen astronauts had to endure, and ran through to 2037, where a crew in the hundreds was searching for microbial life, outlasting destructive storms, and dealt with the psychological stress of being further from home than humans had ever been. By the sixth and final episode there was a colony, as well as many accompanying talking head interviews and coverage of the contemporary space programs – both state and private – hoping to make life on Mars a reality.
The second season kicks off five years later, in 2042, but the format remains a sticking point. The scripted segments, complete with the deserts of Morocco doubling for the barren surface of Mars, are made with first-rate production values, but the depth of the characters and their motivations are stubbornly shallow. There’s rarely time for reflection, or moments of offhand contemplation. Often a concept an expert proposes now cuts straight to a scripted scene that reworks it in the context of the science-fiction story.
This docudrama concept was disastrous this year in Netflix’s take on the fall of Russia’s ruling Romanov family, The Last Czars, but Mars does a far better job of fitting the two elements together. But there’s still a fair chance that viewers drawn by the hard science and expert opinions have little time for the perpetually urgent storylines, while those intrigued by the plot will be thrown out by the repeated sidesteps into documentary explanation. Neither genre can colonise the other.