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Mat KaplanDecember 19, 2016

These are not my Martians

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.

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Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer
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