Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: Ron Howard's trip to Mars makes riveting viewing

Should we go to Mars? A new docu-drama makes a "mind-blowing" case to answer with a yes.

"Stop the planet I want to get off" feels like an increasingly popular sentiment these last few weeks. It's something to which Elon Musk and the team at SpaceX might reply: "Give us a few years, we're working on it!"

Buggering off to live on Mars might just be a cool sci-fi dream at the moment, but SpaceX are working on making it a reality.

The National Geographic Channel miniseries Mars (based on Stephen Petranek's book How We'll Live On Mars) explores both the dream and what the eventual reality might look like with a slowly mind-blowing fusion of documentary and scripted drama.

A scene from the mini series, Mars, premiering on the National Geographic channel. Photo / AP
A scene from the mini series, Mars, premiering on the National Geographic channel. Photo / AP

The dramatic part of the show takes place in 2033, when the first human mission to Mars blasts off on a 209-day journey from the third to the fourth planet in the solar system. Mission Commander and textbook movie hero astronaut Ben Sawyer outlines the voyage's many dangers in an inspirational speech to his five crew members:

"... Your bodies are going to be exposed to nearly two hundred times a normal year's radiation... Calcium will leach from your bones... there is no test that can tell you whether or not the notion of being 60 million kilometres away from the planet on which you were born will shatter your mind... Some of us, if not all of us, will almost certainly die."

Honestly, it sounds like this is going to be more hassle than it's worth. Should we really bother? Well, according to the engineering boffins and high-level space nerds interviewed in the documentary portion of Mars, becoming a multi-planetary species is essential to the continued survival of the human race.

"We need to go to Mars because it protects us from extinction," says novelist Andy Weir, whose book The Martian was adapted into the Matt Damon movie that came out last year. "Once humans are on two planets the chances of extinction drop to nearly zero."

It's soundbites like these that stimulate the imagination the most in the first episode, while the dramatic 2033 side seems a little preoccupied by its attempts at maximum realism. Overall though the two different elements complement each other surprisingly effectively; at times they blur together as one, the documentary segments acting almost like flashbacks.

The first string of talking heads from real-life space experts blends seamlessly into fictional pre-launch interviews from the astronauts, for example, a trick that should play well with the show's stoner audience. But while there's buzzy stuff to keep us regular space dunces entertained, hardcore science freaks should still find plenty to sink their teeth into.

The first episode spends a lot of time with Elon Musk; the guy whose company Tesla has been busy perfecting the self-driving car is also leading the charge to relocate to Mars with his other company SpaceX.

"The long term goal of SpaceX is to develop the technology to establish a self-sustaining city on Mars," he says, making that sound like a completely reasonable and achievable goal.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. Photo / AP
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. Photo / AP

"It's just an engineering problem like any other," says SpaceX's Director of Build Reliability Shana Diez.

The big challenge at the moment is to design a reusable rocket. "If they nail this ability to land a rocket any way they want on Earth, then they can nail doing it on Mars," speculates Petranek.

Assuming they do nail it, in 2033 the six astronauts eventually make it to Mars. Mission Commander Ben Sawyer's voiceover narration paints another hopeless picture: "We had 75 kilometres ahead of us over brutal terrain ... Temperatures would drop to minus 70 degrees before nightfall ... The only help we had was somewhere up there, on a little blue dot."

Going to Mars certainly sounds like a lot of hard yakka. But after hearing from Elon Musk and the other interviewees it's hard not to to buy into their wild dream and see how it plays out - if not in reality, then at least on this show.

- NZ Herald

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Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

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