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These are not my Martians

Posted by Mat Kaplan

19-12-2016 11:13 CST

Topics: product review

We’re all space geeks here, right? So, just among friends, has anyone else found the National Geographic Channel’s Mars miniseries to be irritating? Not the documentary portions. Those have generally been outstanding, and feature the best collection of Red Planet guest experts ever. They include, very prominently, my passionate and articulate colleague Casey Dreier, along with many other past guests of Planetary Radio.

Those of you who haven’t seen an episode or two deserve some background. Be warned that there are spoilers ahead. Here’s an inspiring trailer for the series:

I was thrilled by the prospect of National Geographic taking on this project. Their approach sounded wonderful: Weave the current-day experts into a grand story about not just the first men and women to reach Mars, but the first to establish a permanent human presence. We were promised first-rate special effects and a carefully-researched story that would stick scrupulously to the facts. And if you couldn’t trust National Geographic, who could you trust? The contextually relevant expert commentary is accompanied by excellent documentary sequences that take us to Antarctica, the International Space Station and other extreme environments where we are learning how to survive on the Red Planet.

My beef is with the dreary, melodramatic, literally dark telling of the fictional tale that unfolds across the 2030s. Did the producers and writers learn nothing from The Martian? Yes, they get Mars right, so far as I can tell. But they get the people we send there so, so wrong. Do these dour colonists ever find something to chuckle about? Do they even once look about them, in the midst of their ongoing troubles, and marvel at the beautiful world they have moved to? Not that I saw.

We get the great effects. We even get the science, though you don’t see the new Martians doing much of it. I also expected an inspiring, uplifting tale of exploration. Undoubtedly, there would be danger and conflict. That’s good drama and probably reality. It’s clear that the producers, including the great Ron Howard, wanted to communicate just how difficult getting to and staying on Mars will be.

I get it. Space is hard. Mars is harder. But these sour pioneers don’t behave much like the astronauts I’ve met. It’s also apparent that their training and their standard operating procedures are not up to NASA standards. Take, for example, their exploration of a lava tube--a vast, deep cavern left by ancient volcanic activity. (Spoilers begin here.)

All the cute little drones are conveniently out of action, so they lower someone into the depths. Just one someone? And she doesn’t have cameras on her suit? Or halfway decent lights? And no one brought a radar gun so they’d know if the cable was long enough? What’s more, these ill-trained explorers hardly ever respond promptly to calls for status reports when they are out and about. By the way, must filmmakers keep putting lights inside space helmets? Cinematographers, please, find another way.

What finally did me in was the climactic finish of episode five. We have met a seriously depressed and now delusional agronomist. (Another Martian potato farmer?) The resident psychologist and others know he’s deeply troubled. He spends far more time talking with his plants than with the humans around him, including his wife. So, when he is seen on video monitors staring at a door that leads out of the pressurized habitat, why does everyone just watch till he starts to fumble with it? I should mention that the doors are really, really easy for one person to open, and that they open OUTWARD. Who designed this hab? Somebody needs to be fired. Or sued. Or prosecuted.

I had such high hopes. Fortunately, the companion book, Mars—Our Future on the Red Planet, is magnificent. It benefits from Leonard David’s always superb writing, and has the glorious illustrations you’d expect from National Geographic. The children's book Mars: The Red Planet is also excellent. Buy the book, and then watch The Martian one more time. National Geographic, I hope your next foray into docudrama does right by the real explorers and scientists you have brought us in such marvelous fashion for so many years.

See other posts from December 2016


Or read more blog entries about: product review


Mel Powell: 12/19/2016 12:09 CST

OK, this is funny, because I was considering e-mailing MK about exactly this. Yes, I'm with you here. While I appreciate the level of teamwork shown by and among the surviving original five explorers, I've had specific moments where my Starfleet training (in law school?) should not exceed 2033 astronauts. 1) Leaving people along. While the Commander was post-op, they *all* went to sleep? Heck no, they would have taken shifts monitoring him, and wake up Dr. Amelie if you need to. Didn't matter, but...bothered me. 2) Leaving people alone. OK, you know he's fragile and he's near a door...even before he starts approaching it...and you leave him alone? No. 3) EVERY door to the outside on that habitat doesn't have a double-door airlock with safeguards such that only one can be open? Seriously? (And it opens outward...) 4) He's stumbling out a door, oblivious to his surroundings...but apparently able to enter the right code to get the door to open. (In fairness, it's possible I missed something and he just pushed a button.) 5) Robert didn't bring an extra simple ball of string in case his tether wasn't long enough? 6) They're so bored that no one brought DVDs for Movie Night? Even Tom Paris hosted Movie Night. 7) We don't have a clearly established protocol, in general, for who is in command of the station, Hana or the new "Phase 2" woman, for final calls pending the time-delayed call to Earth to resolve non-emergency disputes? I didn't want to nit-pck...and I don't think Mat is nit-picking, because these nits are dwarf-planet-sized nits... I really wanted to love this series.

Ikani: 12/19/2016 01:08 CST

I was worried that this post (and the first comment) were going to be very nit-picky, but having watched the whole series, I think the critique is very fair. I loved this series in general! But I completely agree. (More spoilers ahead!) Mel Powell, one comment on 1), from my understanding, everyone being asleep was within a dream/death sequence. I was wondering why he was able to don his suit and go hiking right after surgery. So I think THAT one is covered. Everything else though. Especially the doors both in this and The Martian. Aren't each module of the ISS linked by double doors, one on each side? (on top of airlocks for external access) One other note I've seen was gravity. I guess so much time spent on Mars (in both stories) would have the astronauts adapted to it, but it's never specifically handled. Still definitely enjoyed, though. :)

Bernie: 12/19/2016 03:16 CST

What about the dust storm. You would think you were on Earth. With an atmospheric pressure on Mars of what you get at ~ 100,000 ft above earth I would expect the noise of blowing wind to be almost non- existent and the suspended dust to create a haze of fine dust and not sheets of dust with large particles. Also what about those drones. Can they even lift off with those size props??

hodah: 12/19/2016 04:47 CST

I'm a film geek more than a space geek. It's a great documentary, and a crap film. Still, I'll watch it till it's through. I think Matt pretty much nailed it. Though as a gaffer that works on feature films, I don't mind the lights in the helmets! :)

gmalone: 12/19/2016 08:27 CST

The thing that completely blew it for me in The Martian was the hollywood style dust storm, instead of a Martian style one. Like you said, low atmo pressure, thin air... mostly fines being blown around... not chunks in a howling gale. Bad/lazy science efforts in sci-fi films can ruin it for me instantly.

gmalone: 12/19/2016 08:29 CST

Oh, and one more thing, inappropriately represented astronauts blow it for me too... hollywood loves to have disgruntled, chain smoking, low-brows sent out on trillion dollar space missions. Other than that.... aghhh.

Cetinn: 12/20/2016 04:21 CST

Apart from the "cinematic" side, this documentary shows us how can be life on Mars. Supply air, heat, food and water then leave people there to live for years... I think it is completeley impossible, humans are not machines or computers. Who can live in a habitat placed inside a cave under a led lighting for almost life long ? One can not pass much time on the surface due to radiation and when do it for a brief period, it will be under a pink sky and see nothing more than stones and dirt. Where will one go after work time? To home ? A home without a window. If one day such a group go and start to live on Mars, half of them will die just a in short time after arrival, and the other half will kill each other then. Without making spaceships that can go between Mars and Earth easily and quickly, it is just a fantasy.

Stargazed: 12/20/2016 08:11 CST

I was disappointed by the future part of the series also. I'm a huge fan and it was still painful to watch at times how it dragged on. I think the first two episodes were the worst in that regard. In general there is very little happening in those future episodes and the astronauts are not behaving realistically. Right now I can't recommend the series to anyone but die-hard Mars fans. Bummer.

HavFugl: 12/20/2016 01:49 CST

Having worked with NGS on a couple of documentaries, and watched a whole lot more of them, it's important to understand that they (like lots of other sponsors/distributers) have an uneven approach to things. Of the two films I was associated with, one was quite faithful to the actual activities it depicted, while the other was "creative" in that regard. When I asked the producer "why?", the response was essentially "I thought the story was better that way". That said, if you want to see a REALLY dreadful NGS documentary, grab a barf bag and watch "Journey to the Edge of the Universe".

Karen: 12/20/2016 07:09 CST

@Cetinn - all of what you wrote is among the reasons that I think an aerial colony on Venus (Landis-style) would be much more appropriate. Just ignoring all of the energy, shielding, transit time, gas-phase resource, mobility, etc, etc advantages.... a Venus habitat is by definition *big* and *open*, as it takes a lot of air to loft a dozens-of-tonnes ascent stage+propellant. If you don't like someone... move the heck away from them. Even a smallish habitat would be dozens of meters long, and the most logical place to live is hanging habitats from the catenaries near the top of the envelope (reduced cable mass, less risk of suffocation in the event of rupture, and you don't need crew mass at the bottom for stability because you have the return rocket at the bottom, which vastly outweighs even a large colony). Pack up your tent and hang it from a different catenary on the other side. The environment shouldn't be depressing at all. Big open spaces, bright, easy to have expansive hanging gardens. Faint clouds drifting by. Far more mysteries to solve. Lots of "recreation" opportunities that just wouldn't exist on a Mars colony, such as indoor skydiving into the safety netting ;) I think it'd be far more "livable"

Karen: 12/20/2016 07:15 CST

As for the series: I know we're all prone to nitpicking topics that we have particular interest in. So we're very likely to be disappointed by such series. I only watched part of this one because I was disappointed by this one for the reasons everyone else has mentioned (also: am I the only one who notices in these things that not only do people move like it's Earthlike gravity, but dust, rocks, etc all fall at what looks like 9,81m/s acceleration? Look at the regolith kicked up by the lunar rovers or the Apollo astronauts' feet, variations in gravity are very visibly noticeable!)

Karen: 12/20/2016 07:24 CST

I have three things in particular that I have an interest in - ISRU, geology, and botany. I saw very little actually done with the first two. They focused a lot on botany, but I found the whole situation very unbelievable (not as bad as with The Martian, which was god-awful, and the book even worse... but still). I grow a veritable jungle under lights in Iceland. So first off, they're using what looks like low pressure sodium lights, which you *never* use on plants. You just encourage lanky growth and starch storage in leaves with them. If we assume they were instead high pressure sodium, that's a traditional lighting source, but not at all what you'd use on Mars; energy efficiency is too important, you'd use LED (blue and red - makes everything look hot pink). And they didn't have *nearly* enough light. Growing plants isn't about sitting there and clipping off random leaves. There's lots of phases of growing plants, and they don't happen all at once. You would never have every last seed you own being grown at once. Seeds are light, sometimes to the point of irrelevant. In a low-tech environment, you often will start them off in plastic bags with a bit of moisture to get them to sprout. You generally have to transplant them a number of times, as you don't want to waste the space of having tiny plants spread far apart. You don't just st there and keep fiddling with the leaves, you'll only cause problems. You do however want regular inspections. You're looking for discoloration that can indicate nutrient deficiencies or fungus. You're also looking for pests, particularly on the undersides of leaves. Probably not a huge risk on Mars, but spider mites might make it, they seem impossible to stop (they're practically invisible to the naked eye). You might occasionally spray - for fungus, mites, or foliar nutrient sprays. You'll want to inspect the growth medium, depending on the type of growth medium. It's good to make sure your roots ...

Karen: 12/20/2016 07:37 CST

... are white (or whatever their natural color is) and healthy, not brown, slimy and smelly (rot - could be an infection, often a result of insufficient oxygen). In a formal scientific context there will be a lot of data logging and study, but that's not my field. When the light cut out, yes, the botanist would be in panic mode. But rather than sitting there cutting at things, he'd be out there taping trays of plants centimeters away from every walkway/room light in the building. It's easy to fall into thinking about photon utilization: "these plants are only capturing 50% of the photons from this light source; you can have the rest for room illumination, but they need first dibs at catching the light". In my case, I move things around, run vines around to everywhere that a lot of light is sneaking past, etc to try to ensure that almost all of the light I'm paying for ends up on leaves... and still probably only make use of about ~60% of it. There is some advantage to pruning in an emergency (particularly root damage or dehydration, but also light)... but it's not sitting there clipping off random little leaves as if you're making a bonsai. There's no precision needed. Just cut. Reduce the amount of cells that are consuming stored sugars, transpiring, etc. Keep enough leaves to keep up your efficient capture of the light that you do have. Oh, and the greenhouse was *way* too small for that many people.

Steve: 12/22/2016 04:48 CST

I too had high hopes for this series. After it was finished, I felt that if I had been a Mars colonist with those people as neighbors I would have died of boredom. The documentary parts were enough.

jsheff: 12/24/2016 12:23 CST

I agree with many of the points above, and would like to add two of my own: In the first episode, the lead astronaut gives a sort of pep talk and gives everyone who doesn't regard this mission as the most important thing in their lives a chance to bail. Seriously? In truth, anyone who was not intensely committed would have been weeded out long ago. And, speaking of that scene, the belly of the ship looks cavernous - and empty! Hello, not only is mass precious aboard a ship, but so is volume - especially empty volume. Volume = fuel = $$$!

VirgilSamms: 12/29/2016 01:13 CST

Mars is a dead end. Gerard K. O'Neill eliminated it as a possible second home for humankind back in the 70's. The single most intractable problem being Earth gravity is required for human beings to remain human beings- it is what we evolved to thrive in. O'Neill accepted artificial gravity would be required and this ruled out natural bodies in our solar system (except for Earth). I accept that also even if a legion of Musk fans do not. Please don't bring up cloud city on Venus.

Karen: 12/30/2016 02:19 CST

@VirgilSamms It's not yet clear whether Martian gravity is sufficient or insufficient for human health; the data is lacking. We know of the complications of microgravity, and know that we tolerate 1G well, but the effects of prolongued exposure to fractional Gs are not yet understood, and only prolongued human testing under those conditions can reveal them. And probably the easiest way to do that is to actually put people there; building a rotating version of the ISS would likely be just as expensive, but far less scientifically useful. As for Venus, why not? All of this has nothing to do with Musk, BTW.

VirgilSamms: 12/31/2016 07:06 CST

@Karen It's clear that less than normal gravity is debilitating. We do not "tolerate" 1G: we are designed by evolution for 1G. Prolonged human testing is not required- it is not going to be healthy and probably will not allow "Martians" who live there for many years or born there to return to Earth. That is all they will dream of. It is no use trying to explain why not Venus if someone doe not get it right off. By the way, a rotating ISS has nothing to do with this, while Musk, who has popularized colonizing Mars and burned up several billion in tax dollars and subsidies- is about Mars.

VirgilSamms: 01/03/2017 07:23 CST Dr. Paul Spudis also has some strong words about this show.

Torbjörn Larsson: 01/31/2017 02:35 CST

I have not seen the series, but I do understand the frustration of having to suspend a lot of disbelief. Some of the stuff happens because movies takes shortcut - say, the astronaut weeding talk - so I would try to accept such incongruities at least. @VirgilSamms: Your unsupported claims has nothing to do with ongoing science and exploration, so I am not sure why you opinionate unnecessarily. (Okay, there is one fact in there, our species evolved for "1g" - but most of our evolution happened in "0 g" of liquid support. Which may explain why we survive similar micro-acceleration environments of space.)

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