On TV: A Tale of Two Red Planets

By Corey S. Powell | November 15, 2016 10:14 am
Are we there yet? Astronauts discover that landing on Mars is only the beginning of their journey in the dramatized half of the show. (Credit: National Geographic Channel)

Are we there yet? Astronauts discover that landing on Mars is only the beginning of their journey in the dramatized half of the show. (Credit: National Geographic Channel)

I’ll confess, I came to Mars, the new National Geographic miniseries that debuted last night, with a good dose of skepticism. First of all, it is a half-drama, half-documentary blend, a hybrid mix that often ends up combining the weakest elements of both. Second, there is the matter of timing. The drama part focuses on the intense survival challenges facing the first crew of astronauts to land on Mars. Um, didn’t we just see that in The Martian? The documentary part seems out of step as well, focusing on high-minded ideas about human spaceflight right at a time when the United States is being tossed about by dark political currents.

So I’ll come right to the point: Mars is a success. It paints a portrait of two Red Planets, a distant aspirational target in 2016 and an immediate world to explore and overcome in 2033. It explicitly embraces Elon Musk’s vision of humans as a two-planet species (Musk is a frequent presence in the documentary portions), and it takes a long-horizon view of technological progress that we could really use right now.

Much of that unshakeable optimism comes straight from executive producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, the guiding force behind Mars. I spoke with them to find out more about their inspirations for Mars the series, but also about their feelings regarding Mars-the-planet as the next step in our species journey into the final frontier. [For more astronomy and space news, including real developments on Mars exploration, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell]

You chose a potentially awkward format for Mars, combining a space-exploration documentary with an imaginary story of a 2033 mission to the planet. What made you decide to take both approaches at once?

Ron Howard: Mars actually began as a documentary and evolved into this half-scripted adventure story. We were very much inspired by what we were learning in the documentary portion of the series, in which we take a look at the tipping point we’re at, and all that’s being done now to reinvigorate this drive outward into space. It happened in particular when we interviewed Elon Musk and heard his thoughts about Mars.

Ron Howard at work, bringing Mars to Earth. (Credit: National Geographic Channel)

Executive producer Ron Howard at work, bringing Mars to Earth. (Credit: National Geographic Channel)

How did you find an effective balance between fact and fiction in Mars? It feels natural in the series, but I’ve seen how many ways that can go wrong.

Ron Howard: Brian was an early instigator in this regard. When the idea was floated that maybe we should dramatize part of this series, Brian immediately leaped to the idea it shouldn’t be just snippets of dramatization, it should be characters and a real story. I remember Brian saying, “We can convey so much more with characters we’re invested in and a story that we can follow.” It was about using the research, yes, but also using that as a springboard to create a drama that is authentic yet emotionally engaging. I remember he put it out in a meeting in a way that surprised me—the experimental side of it.

Brian Grazer: Well, thanks! But we were really lucky to have good partners. We had Peter Rice [chief executive of Fox Networks Group], we’d done a lot of other television with him, including Empire and 24. I had lunch with him and I just one-sentenced our concept for Mars, and he got really excited. Having an enthusiastic partner is encouraging. And then Courtney Monroe [chief executive of National Geographic Global Networks], she too was very excited. With a project like this it’s not just about the people who say yes to you, it’s about the really smart people you collaborate with and learn from.

In the documentary parts you talk to both NASA and private spaceflight experts. Which side do you see as more instrumental in making a Mars journey happen for real?

Brian Grazer: There’s a common interest for all those people: NASA, Elon Musk, other space agencies. They all agree that space exploration is essential, getting to Mars is essential. Our research in talking to them makes me feel that is essential as well. And there are all these other related reasons why it’s important for America to be operating in this plane. Geopolitical reasons, for instance.

Brian Grazer, one of the executive producers on Mars, shows his true red colors. (Credit: Brian Grazer)

Brian Grazer, one of the executive producers on Mars, shows his true red colors. (Credit: Brian Grazer)

The geopolitical value of space exploration seems obvious, but what else do you have in mind?

Brian Grazer: Is it obvious? As Elon Musk put it very eloquently, the moment you when you can just about go—that’s the moment to really push ahead. Because if we could go and we balked, and then we did face some kind of catastrophe that made it impossible to go, or that even eliminated the human race…that would be a huge regret. Elon is an individual who wants to live without regret, even the possibility of it. So to him it’s all very logical. Pushing into space is also unifying. We can make people around the world understand that human beings can choose so much more than anyone had ever dreamed, and make science fiction fact in that really palpable, remarkable way. All these things are possible. But are they obvious?

Did you start out as a believer in space exploration when you began working on the Mars miniseries?

Brian Grazer: As excited as everybody was, I sometimes start this unraveling at the rhetorical questions. I thought, Why should we care about going to Mars? It seems like an obvious question, but I really didn’t know the answer. I knew that anyone who’s really progressive thinks about transported to space, but I didn’t know why we should go to Mars. I thought about it in the same way we did with the movie Apollo 13: How do we humanize the problem and make it cinematic? I brought that “obvious” question, that admission question, to the group and we began to assault it over and over again.

The best way to answer it, we decided, was to do it in this form. We had experts and characters that could participate in what is going to be archival documentary footage or footage that is going to be created to deal with the cinematic part. I guess that’s what you were asking, and what Elon’s referring to: How do you get people to identify with the reason and adventure and purpose of this whole task? We thought that this approach, documentary and cinema, would do it.

I see I struck a nerve with my flip use of “obvious.” But it sounds like you are trying to persuade the public, not just to watch this series but to help realize the whole premise of the show. Is that right?

Ron Howard: Yes, definitely. I became involved because I believe not just in going to Mars but in what the space program means to our country, to the world, to generations to come. Anything that supports that, romanticizes that in the world of today, and makes people believe it’s possible and begin to think of going into space as an imperative like I do, is a theme worth tackling I think.

Brian Grazer: You write for Discover and think about these things much more that I do. I just dream about these things. I had to learn about it to even approach working on this project. I invested it with human emotion, and that’s the goal of a cinematic experience, but I didn’t know that much about space aviation. I had to learn on the go. It was exciting when I realized, Oh wow, that’s why everybody wants to do it!

So you believe there is a human destiny in space?

Ron Howard: I believe that, yes. I think it would be tragic if we didn’t pursue it, and I think society benefits so much from that pursuit. I’m in that school of thought.

There is another tricky balance in your series, between the thrill of exploration and the incredible danger. Between the desire and the fear. How did you attempt to strike the right tone there?

Ron Howard: We began with the book How We’ll Live on Mars. A lot of the problems and challenges people are going to face, the life-threatening circumstances that they’re going to have to navigate, are there in the book. Then we began interviewing everyone, from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Elon Musk and Andy Weir [author of The Martian]…we had 21 big thinkers from NASA, JPL, SpaceX, and other places. We began quickly developing the punch list of all the terrible things that could happen on Mars, and what some of the contingency plans would be to try to survive those crises. That’s the core of the drama that you see in the scripted portion of the series.

Given those risks, if your son or daughter said “I want to go to Mars,” how would you feel?

Ron Howard: I would of course be anxious and terrified as a parent, but I’d also understand the very human passion to explore and to be on the absolute vanguard of discovery. There’s no doubt that the first mission to Mars will be the greatest adventure a human being has ever conducted.



  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Surface ionizing radiation dose is 30 rads/year plus solar hard UV. The acute problem is radiation cataracts, chronic is being fried (cancer, sterility). Organics will be decomposed by UV. Polycarbonate face shields will shrink and go brittle (autoaccelerating photo-Fries rearrangement). Do you think soil is just wet inert material, or hydroponics will support a colony? BIODOME giggle Bring along a big bag of Dr. Earth garden soil and some pouches of MycoApply Soluble MAXX as innoculant. Colonists’ thyroids will blow from Martian perchlorate.

    Send social activists. Let them argue with physical reality. Plan a colony to burrow at least 10 meters underground for starters. Will there be a dentist? There’s gonna be a lot of humping – babies and their messes, passion homicides. Inbreeding. The first New World European colonists did a lot of dying. The natives did not do much better.

    • https://twitter.com/jonsaxon67 Jon Saxon

      Spewing science trivia doesn’t make you a scientist. Spewing engineering problems doesn’t make you an engineer. What do most people call having an unchanging view of the world, where doing things as they’ve always been done is the ideal way of life? Religion.

      The problems you mentioned are real, but over the past millennia we have solved more difficult ones, that many claimed were unsolvable, and I think we are better for it. Experts could offer some solutions to the problems you raised, but you wouldn’t believe then anyway, so just sit back, have others work hard solving the problems, and taking risks, and you can then swoop in and reap the rewards. Seems like you have it made.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        A hermetically isolated (adiabatic) hard vacuum envelope contains two closely spaced but not touching, in-register and parallel, electrically conductive plates having micro-spiked inner surfaces. They are connected with a wire, optionally containing an in-series dissipative load (small motor). One plate has a large vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., osmium at 5.93 eV). The other plate has a small vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., n-doped diamond “carbon nitride” at 0.1 eV). Above 0 kelvin, spontaneous cold cathode emission runs the closed isolated system. Emitted electrons continuously fall down the 5.8 volt potential gradient. Electron evaporation from carbon nitride cools that plate. Accelerated collision onto osmium warms that plate. Round and round. The plates never come into thermal equilibrium when electrically shorted. The motor runs forever.

        The Second Law of Thermodynamics is thus empirically falsified. The error is in the second sentence. Find it. Colonizing Mars is no more credible – doomed by footnotes..

        • John C

          I get the feeling you have lots of bumper stickers on the back of your Subaru.

        • https://twitter.com/jonsaxon67 Jon Saxon


          You are mixing opinion and theory with fact – a common misconception of science. May seem like a semantic difference, but its actually huge. When you think its fact you don’t ever need to reconsider, or even listen to opposing views. We’d still believe the earth is flat and that Newtons laws are fact. (and your arguments are nowhere near even the colloquial use of “proof”)

          “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge” (or, as I like to paraphrase: “The enemy of truth is not lie, its certainty”).

          I am not certain Mars colonisation will happen. But I do know that your certainty is scientifically misguided.

          Its your certainty (and therefore lack of engagement in open minded debate) not your opinion that I find problematic.

        • jhewitt123

          Exactly, even a machine that knows everything will still smell nothing if it is not constructed within the same universal charter that builds our mitochondria from quarks.

  • John C

    Mars will probably be a destination for short term stays by scientists, like Antarctica. But long term colonization will run into major problems. Prolonged exposure to a low gravity environment, on the surface as well as the back and forth trips, will cause osteoporosis, wasting of muscle groups and other serious health problems. Terra-farming an air atmosphere is out because Mar’s core is not a revolving ball of molten metal generating a magnetic field to prevent cosmic rays and solar wind from blowing an atmosphere into space. That’s just for starters. Exploration of Mars makes much more sense with robots, as we are doing now.

    Long term human colonization of the solar system will probably take the form of “build to suit” fusion powered space stations providing suitable gravity, air, medical care, supplies, radiation shielding – manufactured from asteroid material by automated factories situated on the asteroids. A couple of hundred years down the road, but much more sensible than trying to make a go of it on Mars.

    • coreyspowell

      I agree that in for the forseeable future, Mars as a short-term research station if far more plausible than Mars as a colonial destination. The level of risk facing long-term settlements is incredibly high. I give the producers of “Mars” credit for acknowledging those dangers. Anyone who goes on an early trip to the Red Planet will need to be aware that it could be a one-way voyage that may not even reach the surface. But as Ron Howard says, a successful Mars mission would be the most incredible voyage of exploration in human history.

  • OWilson

    I share your skepticism.

    Of course the bottom line to all this high minded talk from the dream factory about the future of mankind, is box office ($$$) careers and peer recognition (awards)

    When Hollywood meets science the result can be hilarious (Plan 9) downright scary (2001) or good family entertainment (E.T.) Usually when docu meets drama we have agenda politics (Nixon)

    Successful stories have a single meme that runs throughout, dreams, exploration, adversity, success and reward. It’s Columbus, Wizard of Oz, T’V’s Wagon Train, Star Treck. Redux and reprise.

    The problem for these guys and their Mars shtick is there is no material reward at the end of their rainbow. No spices, tobacco tomatoes, or free big sky land, so we’ll have three hours of the usual thinly veiled political stereotypes. Dumb cops, dumb military, evil executives, good guy, bad guy, maybe a dog, or at least a tail wagging funny robot.

    Great literature and films bring to the people human stories that MUST be told.

    Now we have jaded “filmmakers” sitting round a table, trying to come up with something, anything, that will sell – the details will be filled in later – “Hey!, how about……”

    • Hardly

      Very aptly stated. This is all so Elon can get his billions from the tax paying public, Brian and Ron can get their millions and then they can all get together and sing kumbaya and live happily ever after. I guess, given the amount of consternation suffered by their ilk on just an election outcome and the need for play doughs, psychological counselling, crying rooms, postponed exams and VIOLENT protests, if that generation was to face a significant threat or something that goes against their imagination, we will have to now provide those same play doughs, crying rooms, counselling, etc. on Mars – of course, at a cost of billions.

  • bwana

    “The documentary part seems out of step as well, focusing on high-minded ideas about human spaceflight right at a time when the United States is being tossed about by dark political currents.”

    The United State is not the be all and end all for space travel. If they drag their heels, the Chinese or Russians (my money is on the Chinese) will conquer the solar system. It is just a matter time until someone makes the move.

  • goran jovicevic

    I do not know – I watched series (in reprising time as well) but must admit, with mixed emotions. I’m not very attached to a Big words, big history concepts a la Arthur Clark’s books, movie scripts (beside the fact that TV still could not be on the same production level as movies, (Hollywood or not). So pretentious concepts sounding even more empty. But one thing is as far as I’m concerned clear – parts of series, documentary or “Martian” are boring a little. To be more exact they are not interesting enough, in terms of up to date TV productions. Not demanding (to comprehend) because of talking great ideas and big words, but rather series goes slow, to slow, in some m moments free of any emotional charge (insecure and not convincing enough, almost like theatrical work with sleepy actors. Political (+/-) people and spiritus moves (Musk role) are not real persons, rather concepts – ideology born promoters of “space or bust” feeling. Could be, must be much more of it, in any sense and aspect possible.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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