Saturday, November 12, 2016

Mars: Episode One, “Novo Mundo” (National Geographic TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that the screening included the first episode, “Novo Mundo,” of the National Geographic Channel’s much-hyped series, scheduled to premiere Monday, November 14, called Mars. The show is an uncomfortable mixture of documentary and dramatic film that cuts back and forth between real-life interviewees from 2016 about the feasibility of Mars missions sponsored and financed by the private sector and the actual first mission to Mars in 2033, made possible by an international consortium including both government space agencies and private companies. What makes the format even more confusing is that the actors playing the first astronauts going to Mars are interviewed in the same format as the genuine interviews in the 2016 portions, and though the version we were watching was commercial-free the show was clearly structured to accommodate commercials, and the structure of the show was the same throughout: commercial break—2016 interview sequence—2033 “interview” sequence—2033 dramatic scene. The idea behind episode one is that the Mars astronauts were supposed to spend the first two years on Mars living inside their spaceship, which would be hooked up to an installation previously built on Mars by robots that would include mechanisms to provide them breathable air and drinkable water from the available resources on Mars — only the astronauts screwed up the landing and ended up 72 kilometers (about 45 miles) from their base camp they were supposed to hook up to for life support. So they have to take their space-probe vehicle and drive, not the full 45 miles, but a shorter distance to a smaller installation built and left on Mars by the Russians — but not all the astronauts will fit in the vehicle and the question becomes whom to leave behind and thereby risk their life and safety. It’s an O.K. science-fiction show but a bit of a letdown after all the hype around it, and the contemptible Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and SpaceX rockets is heavily featured, talking about how the key to economical space travel is making the booster rockets reusable. This might inspire more confidence if his company didn’t have such a rotten track record launching supposedly “reusable” rockets: his attempts so far have either blown up on the launch pad or crumbled to fiery bits on re-entry — and the film is full of actual documentary sequences showing just how badly Musk’s rockets have performed, which isn’t exactly going to have people lining up to contribute money and resources to the putative Mars expedition the fictional parts of the film depict.