Mars is a six episode mini-series that was developed by National Geographic and blends current efforts to explore Mars with a fictional future history where mankind is actively attempting to colonize the planet. Something of a “future historical fictional dramatization” if you will. It is based on Stephen Petranek’s book How We’ll Live on Mars and produced by Ron Howard with music by Nick Cave – yes, that Nick Cave.
I expected a mini-series centering on the colonization of Mars to be something along the lines of The Right Stuff, only more fictional. The “present” starts off in 2033 and is a dramatization of our first colonization trip to Mars. We don’t get much on the lead-up to the launch or the trip itself, but the opening episode deals more with the arrival on Mars and what goes wrong. There are some “flashbacks” and “vintage interviews” with the crew, but not much to give a look at the training and journey itself.
Another set of “archival” interviews from the year 2016 is interspersed throughout the series. Such people interviews include popular scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astronaut Scott Kelly who spent a year on the international space station, authors and more scientists, NASA and otherwise.
Of course something does go wrong and the team lands in a spot that wasn’t planned for, then there’s an injury, a mechanical failure, and those are just some of the complications the crew face on Mars. How they deal with and overcome them is the main focus of the series.
I found the “vintage” interviews from 2016 to be too much, over-used, and eventually detracting from the dramatic story. While they do provide some factual and scientific information, there are just too many of them. As for the pacing of the 6 episodes they present a good sense of drama, but the over-use of the 2016 footage takes away from the flow of the story and doesn’t allow for more of the story to be told.
The first three episodes take place in 2033 with the last three taking place in 2037. There is a lot of ground covered that is not depicted. Really the first three episodes only deal with the arrival and searching for a location to establish a permanent base. for the second half of the series jumps in time to 2037, examining what life might be like for the people who chose to life so far away from civilization and some of the challenges in establishing a new colony.
Visually Mars manages to spark the imagination by utilizing almost every trick in the special effects toolbox. Then there are the actual archival shots which look downright primitive. All in all Mars does a good ob getting the viewer immersed in the alien world.
Special features are decent, starting with a prequel Before Mars which is almost a full episode in length addding some background to the characters we get to know. There there is a 45 minute “making of” piece which is really interesting and spends some time to actually look into what it took to make this series (as opposed to the 8 minute fluff pieces we normally get). A couple of more “sciency” featurettes look at the more factual aspects of getting to and living on Mars are included as well, but are significantly shorter. Then we get the requisite behind the scenes and cast/crew interview. Definitely a solid package.
Mars is a much more engaging miniseries than I had thought it would be – at least the “future historical fictional dramatization” portions which make up the bulk of the program. I found myself skipping through a few of the “past” (present day) interview sections, but that’s me. And there is so much left to explore with this story it’s good Mars was renewed for a second season.
There is a Study Guide from National Geographic to use the themes of exploring and colonizing Mars to create full lessons. It is over 170 pages so It’s not just a couple of questions regarding “What kind of soil is on Mars?”, but instead a real tool to use for learning either at home or in a classroom.