Listen, when you cut the cord and don’t have 500 live channels magically beamed into your television set, you tend to miss out on a few things. I might not always be caught up on the latest shows or be able to avoid spoilers for particularly great TV. I’ve learned to live with it.
But it was particularly painful to miss out on last year’s six-part miniseries Mars, which was produced by National Geographic, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer. It was therefore a thrill to grab the show on blu-ray (thanks to National Geographic and 20th Century Fox) and watch it the only way I know how: at my own speed and without commercials.
Mars follows a crew of international astronauts on humanity’s first manned mission to Mars. The show takes a unique approach in that it tells the story in a blended format. Half of the show is a scripted narrative set in 2033, following this (fictional) crew on their way to Mars. We see their story and learn about them through preflight interviews, by following along on the trip and after touchdown on Mars, and by entering mission command to see what it takes to support the mission (logistically, scientifically, financially, and politically).
It strongly reminded me of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, which dramatized the Mercury and Apollo missions. And that is not a bad comparison to make, trust me. Mars humanizes our eventual first footsteps out into the larger solar system and clearly shows us the challenges and sacrifices such a journey will demand.
The other half of the show is a documentary set in 2016 and focuses on the groundbreaking work that is actually being done in real life to lay the foundation for our eventual journey to Mars. These segments feature visionaries, scientists, and real-life heroes such as Elon Musk (who recently declared the colonization of Mars to be a primary objective for SpaceX), Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, Jim Lovell, Scott Kelly, and Andy Weir (among many others).
While the narrative portion of the show moves forward, showing some of the difficulties and hardships the first humans on Mars will likely encounter, the documentary segments of each episode focus on a relevant and specific aspect of scientific discovery happening today. For example, the first few episodes focus on the amazing strides SpaceX is making toward reusable rockets, Scott Kelly’s year in space, and the contributions companies like ExoMars are making toward advance robotic exploration of the planet.
The series is loosely based on Stephen Petranek’s How We’ll Live on Mars, and Petranek himself appears in the 2016 half of the show to add commentary and perspective. The book spun out of the popularity of his first TED talk, but it’s his second TED talk (“Your Kids Might Live on Mars. Here’s How They’ll Survive.”) that is more relevant to Mars and this show. I highly recommend checking it out.
In addition to the six episodes of the series, the blu-ray release also includes the following special features:
- Making Mars
- Before Mars: A Prequel
- Before Mars: Behind the Scenes
- Getting to Mars featurettes
- Living on Mars featurettes
- More Mars featurettes
- Behind-the-scenes featurettes
- Cast and crew interviews
Mars is utterly compelling viewing, and we highly recommend it. There are some moments of intense danger (and death), so it might not be appropriate for the youngest viewers, but my 5- and 8-year-olds were fascinated. But truth be told, it was my wife and I are who were most captivated. We aren’t usually binge watchers, but Mars delivered. We blew through it in short order.