Review of: Mars
Television Show (Sci-Fi, Mystery):
Ben Young and Mason Justin Wilkes
Season 2

Reviewed by:
On January 23, 2019
Last modified:January 23, 2019


The Mars hybrid of documentary and drama isn't working. The characters remain thinly drawn, and the drama verges on melodrama. While the plots take place against the wondrous backdrop of a well-drawn Mars, the planet never gets to become the star of the show.

Review: Mars Season 2

First of all, thank you to NatGeo and Mars Season 2 for throwing the best Comic-Con party a couple of years in a row. Dancing astronauts on stilts. Magical.

Second, I liked Mars Season 1. It was fresh, a little detached as a docudrama should be and it included several obstacles and issues that a real mission to Mars would face. There was death, micro-particulate red sand everywhere, a difficult time finding water and a lot of stress among the crew. Mars was never billed as an adventure series, so I didn’t expect Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Mars. It was OK. Nice to see Mars, the planet, rendered for more than a couple of hours.

Season 2

Unfortunately, Season 2 took the slow pace of Season 1 and seemingly placed it next to a singularity so the drama appeared even slower from this viewer’s vantage point. And the docudrama cut-in seemed longer and redundant. I think the core Mars audience knows most of the stuff that Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson and others share. The endless “Earth in Crisis” footage isn’t entertaining. If they want to share stuff about Mars that is really relevant to the show, then share stuff about Mars, not about the Antarctic. Sure there are analogs, but you know, as I’m writing this I’m feeling my prose get bogged into the same shift from propaganda to drama. Here’s a suggestion, do what other recent genre shows do, save the documentary portion for an after show podcast or something like that.

The Hybrid Documentary-Drama Experience: Failed

The core of Mars feels eviscerated by the documentary cut-ins. They tried, but I think a little too hard, to create drama. Slightly different bacteria that go on a mini-Alien killing spree, a baby to be born in space, unrequited love, the death of a loved one, a potential betrayal of a colleague (who is also the love interest) and an out-of-control corporation threatening to both take over everything and ruin everything.

Mars could have been Dallas on Mars. That might have been entertaining. Mars could also have pulled back the inter-personal and corporate drama and made Mars, the planet, a more central character. I’m not sure I learned anything new about Mars, at least not anything real. I think some “Mars is kicking our ass” stuff as seen in The Martian would have been welcome, and I hope it rears its head in Season 3. I don’t want Downtown Abbey on Mars with an exploration of what others beyond the command crew are doing. I want to see people out working and building and trying to survive in the hardest environment humans have even found themselves in.

There are hints, such as the growl of frustration after not finding surface water. But even that frustrated roar by Commander Hana Seung(Jihae Kim) rang hollow as the first generation on Mars isn’t likely to do much to change the planet. The terraforming expectations in Mars greatly accelerated and exaggerated. I’m not even sure why terraforming is more than a minor plot point that points to some future aspiration.

Wasted World Building

What’s so frustrating to me as a viewer is how good Mars looks. They spent all of that money on world building only to then populate Mars with thin characters and melodrama. Sure, Mars is everywhere, but it is also nowhere.  Even the hard stuff, like drilling for water seems not as hard as it probably would be, and the solution to that problem was too convenient. And the aftermath was too much. (And who allowed for explosives on anything but the escape hatch on a spaceship, really?).

Diagnosis, Mars

Mars doesn’t know what it wants to be. The hybrid documentary thing isn’t working. The characters and plots subsist as underdeveloped promises in a vista of well-developed worlds and cliched documentary. Spend time and money on the script. Make Mars a character. Find some way to focus not on the big issues on Earth but on the intimate moments on Mars—in detail and with emotional meaning. Make it hard. Make it cruel—even make it ultimately an overcoming obstacles story—and that obstacle is to live to the end of the season—but don’t make Mars a soap opera (unless you go all in for that, but we have the The Orville already). Don’t be disingenuous when pulling heart strings. The deaths seemed too half-baked, the survival too opportune. Mars needs an identity as a show, and it needs one before Season 3.

And the characters don’t help.

I have personally found it hard to identify with any of the characters. In almost every show I watch there is someone I feel an emotional connection to immediately. I care about the character or want to be a character. With Mars, I found myself wanting to be the character that was neither cast, nor launched, nor scripted. Ben Cotton always seemed a reluctant command who just stepped up, in an uninspired way. When he died, Seung had an opportunity, but the character turns into a utilitarian diplomat, not a leader. As much as I had issues with the premise behind Star Trek: Discovery, any of the female leads would have added more drama to Mars with a single look or quip or gesture than the one NatGeo sent to the Mars set.

Mars Knows

Fortunately, the planet Mars knows what it is. It is harsh and cold. It is dusty and distant. It is barren with a unique chemistry that may not be compatible with humankind. Mars wants to be the star of the show, but NatGeo hasn’t accepted its obvious diva. It would rather skirt the edges of the familiar than put viewers on the uncomfortable ground that might for many make Mars a villain rather than a hero. If Mars is going to save humanity, it’s going to do it in some far-flung future. For the more immediate future, any human interaction with Mars will necessarily focus on survival, not aspirations.

The writers need to step back and not watch current drama, but put their brains on the arid, cold and unforgiving surface or Mars and let the light winds with their dust devils and the distant sun, and the red and gray ground, and the waterless horizon beat on them until they imagine themselves there, in thin ships and even thinner space gear and find the drama in people living in an inhospitable place. Don’t try to interject normalcy, create the new normal for those living on Mars.

I want to see that. And maybe the heroism in the small moments will kindle the desire for other humans to overcome the seeming unassailable impediments humans on Mars. Real astronauts did that for the moon, though society never understood what to do with all those who looked at the moon and wanted to conquer it. Perhaps by lighting a new flame to those personal ambitions, Mars will turn us again to the moon as the first place to not just visit but to engage with regularly.

The moon isn’t as close as it seems, and it isn’t any easier to live on that Mars, but it is closer and more importantly, it is in the night sky. There will be nothing like the moment when humans first see the human transformation of the surface of the moon with the naked eye. Heinlein and Clark wrote about moments like that. When children looked up at the Harsh Mistress of the moon and saw humanity on it.

Mars only matters because we think it matters. We want to create Mars in our image, but first, we have to find out if our imagination is big enough.

We perhaps look to Mars today because we failed the moon. We never built out that vision. Mars will be no more forgiving, society no more willing to invest in the long-run. We are much more likely to fail on Mars than on the moon simply because of months versus days of travel.

Even in Mars ends up as a metaphor for the populating the moon, it requires respect and reverence for its subject, which it seems to have in abundance. But it also requires diligence of exploration and reality of engagement. We will be sending real people who will be transformed the minute they land and figure out they signed up to live on either rock for an extended period of time.  There will be no normal life. Humanity will need to immediately adapt or it will die. That’s drama. That’s high-stacks. That’s intimate and personal as everyone seeks their own path, some of which won’t be compatible with other paths. And in the forefront always, the transformation agent, the red planet (or the gray one) with its constant caring less about anything that happens as it continues its orbit oblivious and ambivalent about any human activity taking place on its surface.

Mars only matters because we think it matters. We want to create Mars in our image, but first, we have to find out if our imagination is big enough.

The Mars hybrid of documentary and drama isn't working. The characters remain thinly drawn, and the drama verges on melodrama. While the plots take place against the wondrous backdrop of a well-drawn Mars, the planet never gets to become the star of the show.

One thought on “Review: <em>Mars</em> Season 2”

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