“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,” Elton John helpfully informed us in “Rocket Man” nearly 50 years ago. And the emotions experienced by the song’s protagonist – a wistful astronaut having to leave his family behind for a journey to the Red Planet – lay at the heart of Netflix’s lavish new drama, “Away.”
It speaks volumes about the show’s lack of nuance that “Rocket Man” makes an appearance on the soundtrack early on, along with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” the Grateful Dead’s “Ship of Fools” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” to hammer home its themes. But damned if it doesn’t all combine to create a celestial soap opera that’s as subtle as an asteroid but equally impactful.
While most Earthlings are increasingly insistent that “There is no Planet B,” that message clearly hasn’t reached television executives – because by my count, “Away” is the fourth TV drama in the past five years to focus on a manned mission to Mars (not to mention Matt Damon and his “secret sauce” potatoes in Ridley Scott’s 2015 blockbuster “The Martian”).
I’m guessing few people saw National Geographic’s “Mars,” about an attempt to colonize the planet in 2033, or the French drama “Missions,” a curio that unfolded over two seasons in 25-minute chunks, with the crew arriving on Mars at the end of the very first episode.
The most high-profile show until now was Hulu’s “The First,”which remained frustratingly earthbound as it chronicled Sean Penn’s efforts to get a NASA mission to Mars off the ground after its predecessor experienced a catastrophic failure at takeoff. That 2018 show, which often seemed to exist as an excuse for Penn to show off his abs, suffered a similar fate, being canceled after only eight episodes. (The one thing it got right that “Away” ignores is the political question of why we should be spending billions on a space program while Earth goes to hell in a handbasket. “Away,” in comparison, is a glorified advert for NASA.)
So much baggage
At the start of “Away,” the five-person crew on the three-year inaugural mission to Mars is already stationed on a lunar base and counting down the hours until blastoff. For viewers, the biggest question will be how their spaceship, Atlas I, could possibly take off given the amount of baggage each astronaut is carrying.
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As befits a streaming giant with a global reach rivaled only by the coronavirus, our five astronauts are drawn from four global superpowers, and Britain. The NASA Mars Joint Initiative is led – surprise! – by an American: commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank). Her second-in-command is Ram (Ray Panthaki), an Indian officer who’s loyal to his boss to a fault. Then there’s Russian engineer Misha (wonderfully portrayed by Israeli actor Mark Ivanir), who steals every scene as the experienced cosmonaut whose gruff exterior hides an even gruffer interior; Chinese chemist Wang Lu (Vivian Wu), the archetypally – nay stereotypically – dutiful professional who has left her family behind to become the first person to step foot on Mars; and British botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), who has a crazy backstory we’ll get to later.
“The ‘right stuff’ isn’t about ego or swagger anymore. … It’s not about conquering space, it’s about enduring it,” Green says at one point – and boy does she have plenty to endure. Not content with experiencing a bad case of the working mom blues after “abandoning” her 15-year-old daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman) for 36 months, there’s also the small matter of her partner, Matt (Josh Charles) – a NASA man himself – suffering a debilitating stroke while she’s on the lunar base and the mission nears its launch.
The script’s most frequently repeated command is surely “Emma starts sobbing,” and Swank’s character may well prove too much for some. I can’t say the “Million Dollar Baby” star is my favorite actress, but there’s something about her performance here – in which she balances personal anguish with a desire to literally reach for the stars – that feels compellingly real, even allowing for the histrionics.
Those scripts, mostly penned by Jessica Goldberg (“The Path”), generally manage to navigate between serving up plausible-ish, engaging characters and large-scale spectacle – such as a tense space walk set-piece early on, upon which the future of the mission depends. I did say it wasn’t subtle, right?
This is a show that, ultimately, is not afraid to embrace its own cheesiness, offering us choice dialogue like “The further away I get, I’m actually just getting closer to getting back to you.” In space, it turns out, no one can hear you scream – but they can hear you emoting, no matter what your nationality.
Sitting alongside Emma’s parental guilt are her fellow travelers’ own problems: estranged offspring, secret loves, dead siblings and parents, health issues. Consequently, over the 10 episodes (the show has yet to be renewed for a second season), we’re put through the emotional wringer in a manner that’s actually more befitting of a medical drama than sci-fi show.
For sure, no one watching “Away” is going to mistake it for Andrei Tarkovsy’s solemn sci-fi epic “Solaris.” But with its flashbacks to pivotal events on Earth and dramatic incidents aboard the Atlas I, the show carries an undeniable charge. With the spaceship itself seemingly operating on autopilot for most of the eight-month journey to Mars, most of the buttons being pressed are seeking to secure an emotional response from the viewer.
Deep space loneliness
There are elements here of “Apollo 13” (the spaceship looks impressive, but it turns out to be a bit of a Friday vehicle), “Deep Impact” (a chaste love affair between two teens while potentially cataclysmic events take place in the heavens) and, yes, “Solaris,” with its depiction of deep space loneliness and memories of partners left behind on the Blue Planet.
“Away” also looks fantastic, its depictions of the crew experiencing zero-gravity conditions presented in such a matter-of-fact manner as to seem almost mundane. I particularly liked the scene in which the crew partake in some of Misha’s homemade vodka – alcoholic droplets floating playfully in the air as the astronauts squeeze them out of a syringe – and whenever they glide around the flight deck like modern-day Peter Pans.
One of the show’s most interesting choices is to root some of the drama around religious beliefs, given the perpetual state of unhipness religion enjoys in most artistic circles.
In this technological world where so much of the wonder is man-made, Kwesi is presented to us as a man of faith – and his journey from Ghanaian orphan to Torah-quoting Jewish botanist is definitely one of the most unusual backstories I’ve seen in quite some time, involving as it does his being adopted as a child by a super-rich Jewish woman and her Ghanaian partner.
Then there’s Alexis’ new boyfriend, Isaac, whose idea of a hot date is to take “Lex” to Midnight Mass at Christmastime.
I suspect this wholesome family drama may have the same effect on some viewers as NASA’s notorious “vomit comet” training aircraft had on wannabe astronauts back in the day. But there’s plenty to enjoy for those with sturdy stomachs and the inclination to check their cynicism at the door.
“Away” is out now on Netflix