By Chris Byrd
NEW YORK (CNS) — Two years after its November 2016 debut, the limited-series docudrama “Mars” returns to cable’s National Geographic Channel for its sophomore campaign.
Like the “Genius” series, this blend of fact and fiction is the product of the network’s collaboration with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s seemingly ubiquitous production company, Imagine Entertainment.
Intriguing if tendentious, the program’s second season premieres Monday, Nov. 12, 9-10 p.m. EST. The show will air in that time slot throughout its six-week run, concluding Monday, Dec. 17.
Season one’s futuristic sci-fi plot — derived from the 2015 book “How We’ll Live on Mars” by Stephen Petranek — ended in 2037, four years after International Mars Science Foundation astronauts landed on the red planet, enabling the organization’s secretary-general, Joon Seung (the singly named Jihae), to declare, “There’s life on Mars.” Putting it there, however, had involved setbacks, even calamity.
The human presence remains tenuous, moreover. In April 2042, as the new season begins, the scientists of the Olympus Town colony — the community led by mission commander Hana Seung (also Jihae), Joon’s twin sister — remain frustrated by their inability to locate a water source.
With now-former Secretary-General Seung’s bold claim sounding ever hollower, the lives of the colonists are disrupted when miners from Lukrum Industries crash land on Mars. “They’ve already dumped toxic waste,” Russian geologist Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca) says. “Literally on top of us,” second in command Mike Glenn (Gunnar Cauthery) adds.
“Science,” Hana says, “has been our sole purpose here … until now.” Lukrum’s ironically named CEO, Roland St. John (Esai Morales), has made a deal with IMSF, one to which Seung’s successor, Leslie Richardson (Cosima Shaw), has agreed despite serious reservations.
The company will build solar mirrors, which will help the foundation’s terraforming processes by creating reflective screens on the ice caps. This will warm the planet, making it more habitable. In exchange, IMSF will allow Lukrum’s miners to drill for water.
The new arrivals, however, come unprepared to supply their base with power, and must rely on Olympus to generate it. The irksomeness of this arrangement is aggravated by the arrogance of the Lukrum team’s commander, Kurt Hurrellle (Jeff Hephner). “If we require help,” he says to his counterpart, “you’re supposed to give It to us.”
Hurrelle embodies the corporation’s philosophy. He tells Hanna: “There are no real boundaries. Your laws apply only to you guys.”
Hana, more than anyone, shoulders the responsibility of maintaining an uneasy alliance between the scientists and the industrialists — the relationship that forms the core of the show’s narrative. And she does so while coping with a tragedy in her personal life.
Accidents and illnesses reinforce the need to cultivate greater interdependence. Meanwhile, a romance develops between miner Jen Carson (Roxy Sternberg) and scientist Cameron Pate (Levi Fiehler). And Olympus engineer Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi) turns out to be adept at building metaphorical bridges between the camps.
The dialogue occasionally includes some mild vulgarity. But, overall, the script is commendably free of coarse language. The depiction of violence is also relatively restrained.
Still, nongraphic sensuality, oblique nudity and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy all mark this as fare for grown-ups. So, too, does a discussion about a possible abortion, though the ultimate outcome of this subplot will please pro-life viewers.
In one of the documentary sections about present-day earthly realities meant to illuminate the narrative’s themes, novelist Andy Weir — whose popular self-published novel “The Martian” became the basis for the eponymous 2015 Ridley Scott film — sums up Lukrum’s goal: “If there’s money to be made on Mars, people would go there just to make the money.”
That’s a salient enough observation. But other such sections prove frustrating.
The script is heavy-handed in repeatedly driving the same points home. As a result, even viewers concerned about climate change and the obstacles standing in the way of dealing with it, as well as about the exploitation of nature more generally, will find the commentary tedious.
The drama, by contrast, is generally appealing and wraps up with a heartwarming, life-affirming message. For many viewers that will be sufficient compensation for having to sit through the tiresome lectures with which “Mars” is interspersed.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.