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Mars season 2
The second season of Mars features a clash between a scientific base and commercial prospectors, but one that doesn’t really come together. (credit: National Geographic Channel)

Mars: Bringer of ennui (part 1)


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Two years ago, the National Geographic Channel debuted its first scripted television show. Mars had an unusual structure for TV, alternating between documentary segments, expert talking heads, and dramatic segments set during the first human mission to Mars in 2033. (See: “Red Planet blues: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars, part 2,” The Space Review, December 5, 2016, and “Red zeitgeist: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars, part 3,” The Space Review, January 16, 2017.) The first season, consisting of six episodes, featured some excellent and insightful documentary segments and commentary, but the drama segments, which were closely tied to the documentary stories, were grim and depressing. Now, two years later, season two has aired. Unfortunately, that same dynamic was repeated: often stunning documentary segments and intelligent commentary interspersed with tedious and uninspiring drama. If National Geographic has a message about the human exploration of Mars, it is that nobody will have any fun.

The first season took place in 2033 and then 2037, but the second season picks up in 2042, after almost a decade of human activity on Mars. The International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF) has greatly expanded its base in an underground cave on the Martian surface. The base, now known as Olympus Town, houses two hundred people and is commanded by Hana Seung, who took over in the first season after the mission commander died soon after landing. There have been a few personnel changes, but the original crew of doctor Amelie, her boyfriend Javier, engineer Robert, and scientist Marta are still there. Hana’s twin sister Joon is on her way to Mars, having given up her position as head of IMSF to Leslie Richardson. Richardson’s husband went stir crazy on Mars in the first season’s fifth episode and opened a pressure door, killing a bunch of people.

If National Geographic has a message about the human exploration of Mars, it is that nobody will have any fun.

As the second season started very quickly it became apparent that almost everybody on Mars is depressed. Amelie has decided to return to Earth and hasn’t informed Javier, who is suffering Seasonal Affective Disorder—living in a hole in the ground for nine years will do that to you. Javier becomes even more unhappy upon learning that Amelie is leaving. Robert is bored, because he has nothing left to build. Marta, who discovered microbial life forms on Mars at the end of the first season, has not found anything else since then and is starting to consider all her scientific work to be pointless. Back on Earth, Leslie is still haunted by the death of her husband and all the people he killed.

The group’s complacency is soon shaken up by the arrival of newcomers, workers for a company called Lukrum who boldly announce themselves by splattering chunks of spacecraft debris all over the IMSF camp and endangering Hana and her team. Once Lukrum sets up their camp, their smarmy commander, Kurt, declares that his team did not bring enough power and water with them and immediately demands that the IMSF camp supply them because, as Kurt explains, IMSF is obliged by treaty to help out anybody in need (see Mars: A case study in space law”, The Space Review, November 26, 2018). The Lukrum crew even brought a dog named Marvin with them, but didn’t bother to bring an extra nuclear reactor. It is clear from the beginning that Kurt and Lukrum are the baddies, and Kurt does everything except twirl a moustache in declaring his evil intent. Almost from the start you hope this guy gets killed.

Neither Hana on Mars nor Leslie on Earth demonstrate much backbone in dealing with Lukrum. IMSF is now partnered with the Chinese government, which has a station in orbit around Mars. Together they are building solar mirrors to terraform the planet. The Chinese activity is not fully explained in the early episodes and one gets the sense that perhaps National Geographic has a different version of the show for a Chinese audience.

Mars season 2
(credit: National Geographic Channel)

The first episode had several story contradictions, a problem with the writing that persisted for the rest of the season. Early on Kurt demands water and power, and it turns out that they did bring enough supplies to build a pipeline to Olympus Town to get them, so they planned ahead to take somebody else’s resources. Similarly, after starting the pipeline to Olympus Town, Kurt soon decides to cut through an off-limits scientific area, until Hana shows him the important science research they are conducting. After citing IMSF’s treaty obligations to provide his base power and water, Kurt later informs Hana that Lukrum is not bound by any treaties. So apparently, Lukrum can use treaties to their benefit, but ignore them at whim. The fact that Lukrum arrived with insufficient supplies of their own makes their demand little more than extortion. Hana, proving that she’s no Captain Kirk, doesn’t call him on this hypocrisy by immediately cutting off his power and water and demonstrating who has the upper hand. Instead, Hana warns Kurt that Mars can be dangerous and kill you if you’re not careful. Kurt smiles and he and his team drive off in their fleet of monster rovers.

Another inconsistency is that Olympus Town, which is there to study Mars and find signs of life, is also beginning terraforming of Mars with the Chinese. If the IMSF team is so interested in studying Mars and life, then why are they deliberately altering its climate and threatening their own science and their reason for being there? It’s akin to studying a rain forest by burning it down.

Like the old adage that it’s always darkest just before it goes completely black, in the second episode Joon dies of an undiagnosed brain tumor on her way to Mars. Hana takes this badly and holes up in her quarters just as a fight breaks out in the Olympus Town recreation area between Kurt and Marta and the Lukrum and IMSF people. Amelie has also discovered she is pregnant, and sinks into even more of a funk than before. Robert is injured in a reckless accident at the Lukrum work site. Nobody, except perhaps for Kurt, seems to actually be having any fun on Mars, and Kurt is mostly having a blast by exploiting other people and the environment.

If the IMSF team is so interested in studying Mars and life, then why are they deliberately altering its climate and threatening their own science and their reason for being there?

By the third episode, Hana has suppressed her grief over her sister’s death, but it is affecting her command abilities. Marta has become angry and obsessed with Lukrum, which has discovered liquid water beneath the Martian surface. Marta steals a rover and heads over to the Lukrum drilling site, gathering liquid water samples that she believes have the highest likelihood of containing life. But while Marta is out on the surface, a massive solar flare fries electrical systems at both bases. Her navigation system no longer works, so Marta seeks to dead-reckon her way back to Olympus Town. This proves to be a spectacularly bad idea, and soon it is dark and Marta is lost and running out of power. Her rover gets colder and colder and she starts losing consciousness.

Marta’s storyline in the third episode is the best of the season, and perhaps the best of the entire series. Although she’s so obsessed that she is lashing out at her coworkers and friends, as Marta fades in and out of consciousness we get flashbacks to how she ended up on Mars and what she gave up to be there. She had a husband back on Earth, and she left him to go to Mars, saying that it was “bigger than the both of us.” He is mad about this, but she storms away, having made her choice. Those scenes make her behavior on Mars more understandable: Marta gave up her prior life for her scientific pursuits, and now they’re all she has. As she’s freezing to death in her rover, Kurt and the Lukrum team show up and save her, bringing her to the IMSF camp. Even in her delirious state Marta wants her samples, and Kurt willingly gives them to her team, saying that all the IMSF people had to do was ask. In one of the few bits of humor in the entire series he shouts “You’re welcome” as a delirious but still belligerent Marta is carried into sick bay.

The irony—perhaps even tragedy—is that although Marta survives, she learns that her water samples contained nothing more than the same microbes that she had previously found. She risked her life for nothing, and she’s right back where she started.

By episode four, a disease has broken out at the Lukrum base camp. Ironically, it happens as a result of Marta’s scientific research. Marta’s assistant processed the samples while Marta was still recuperating. He got sick and passed the disease on to a Lukrum crewwoman, who then passed it on to several other people. Soon thereafter, Marta’s assistant dies, and Javier is now sick as well. Marta hurriedly rushes to her lab to try to figure out the cause and determines that although the Martian microorganisms she found in the Lukrum water appeared identical to the ones she first discovered on Mars nearly a decade earlier, they multiply rapidly when heated, infecting the humans exposed to them. Marta concludes that the advanced antibiotics that the Lukrum people have been pumping into the sick crewmembers are not going to work and what they need instead is simple penicillin—which neither base has. Luckily, the Chinese space station orbiting overhead has a supply.

Mars season 2
(credit: National Geographic Channel)

IMSF, which is now in partnership with Lukrum, hesitates to contact the Chinese because doing so would immediately become public and risk criticism about Martian diseases. The Lukrum boss is a heartless jerk and worries that the news will tank their stock value. He says no to the request, adding that everybody signed non-disclosure agreements, and besides, the families of the dead will be well-compensated.

While all this lackluster political drama is happening on Earth, back at Olympus Town Hana finally shows some real backbone, ignores the order to wait for approval from Earth, and puts in a request to the Chinese, who send down the penicillin. Medical teams apply it to the sick crewmembers who soon recover. The final scene shows Mike, Hana’s second in command, calling back to IMSF and saying that he believes that Hana is depressed and no longer fit for command—a rather bizarre claim shortly after Hana finally demonstrates real leadership. Hana was the on-site commander and made a tough call that saved peoples’ lives.

Episode four’s dramatic segments were the best of the season up to that point, but not without some flaws. The Lukrum CEO was a little too cutthroat. He was perfectly willing to let a bunch of people die. The show did a good job of illustrating that this is the reality for many companies on Earth, where corporate leaders choose profits over lives every day, and regularly cover up safety lapses. But the problem wasn’t so much the Lukrum CEO’s attitude as the ham-fisted way it was portrayed. Furthermore, losing a big chunk of the Lukrum crew, and possibly even having the contagion spread to the rest of the base, risked destroying Lukrum’s entire operation—you cannot drill for water if everybody is dead. In yet another story contradiction, it is unclear how having a bunch of people die on Mars from disease could ever be kept secret. Wouldn’t their deaths be a bigger operational setback and public relations disaster than the outbreak?

Episode five started with Mike being informed by IMSF on Earth that they’ve rejected his concerns about Hana’s stability. IMSF director Leslie Richardson has decided to keep Hana in charge. Mike doesn’t like this, and it’s clear that he’s going to cause trouble.

But as soon as all of this started happening I kept thinking to myself I bet this is going to involve the dog… And then of course somebody says “Where’s Marvin?”

Lukrum is now drilling for water, but keeps running into problems, getting down a few dozen meters and then running into a hard layer that they cannot get through. Kurt calls up Olympus Town and asks for more power. Apparently, the Lukrum base is sending all their power to the drilling site, and is running on the power that they get from Olympus Town. There’s a bit of dialogue about how the Lukrum guys are fulfilling their part of the deal to manufacture mirrors to be sent into Mars orbit to help with the terraforming. One of the show’s weaknesses—probably due to the limited amount of airtime available to the dramatic segments—was cutting corners by telling the audience things instead of showing them. So for several episodes it was unclear if Lukrum was actually upholding their deal, only to be casually confirmed in a single line of dialogue that they are.

Meanwhile, there is remote sensing data that indicates that a portion of Mars may be getting wet from the terraforming efforts. Hana heads out to that area with Robert. They look around and find nothing. Hana then screams in frustration, fed up with not accomplishing anything on Mars. The late ’90s movie Red Planet had a far more amusing scene where Val Kilmer’s character fails once again and collapses to the ground in exhaustion, saying “Well, that’s about it. I hate this planet.” In contrast, Mars has no levity or even grim humor.

In Hana’s absence, Mike has decided to make his power play. He has been keeping a close eye on the Lukrum power usage, and as soon as they go over the agreed amount, Mike orders his people to cut the power to Lukrum. He informs Lukrum that they had a deal, Lukrum broke it (not for the first time), so he’s cutting them off. He then cuts off communication and locks down the radios so not even Hana can reach them. Javier protests, but Mike shuts him up.

The power cut causes chaos back on the Lukrum base. They were sending all their power over to their drill site, and now they’ve overtaxed their systems and electronics are burning out and sparks are flying and alarms are going off. Kurt’s second in command orders everybody to evacuate to their medical bay where they should be safe.

The entire sequence is rather amazingly stupid. If the power goes out, oxygen doesn’t simply evaporate from the air. The air quality may go bad, but that’s not going to happen in just a few minutes, it’s going to take longer than that. Any well-designed facility is also going to have battery-powered backup systems. But as soon as all of this started happening I kept thinking to myself I bet this is going to involve the dog… And then of course somebody says “Where’s Marvin?”

The Lukrum base second in command seals everybody in the med bay and then goes off in search of Marvin the dog. This requires her to walk about 30 meters, where she finds Marvin sleeping in a corner. She picks up Marvin and then struggles to make it back to the med bay as the oxygen runs out. Will she make it? Will she save Marvin, the only decent human being—well, dog—on the entire Lukrum base?

I’ll end the suspense: Marvin is saved.

During the drama, Javier went outside at Olympus Town and jammed a paper clip into the fuse box and restarted the power to the Lukrum base, which allowed them to turn their oxygen back on at the last moment and save Marvin the Dog.

Hana and Robert make it back to Olympus Town where Hana relieves Mike of command. Mike is a little surprised to learn that Lukrum has been in full meltdown since he cut the power and turned off his phone. For a guy leading a mutiny, he didn’t plan things very well.

Perhaps unconsciously Mars mirrors the space activist/enthusiast community in not answering the “and then a miracle occurs” part of the equation—every day at space conferences people talk about mining water on the Moon to supply a thriving space-based economy that does not exist.

While all this was happening there was political intrigue on Earth that’s rather boring and hard to figure out. Apparently Russia, which was a member of IMSF, signed an exclusive deal with Lukrum to gain access to Lukrum’s mining rights for Mars. This has everybody upset and Leslie Richardson decides that they need to impose sanctions on Lukrum based upon the argument that no single company or country has the right to own Mars’ resources, which Lukrum has taken by fiat. Although it’s an interesting argument, it is also a bit weak. After all, Olympus Town has been using Martian resources for a decade, and presumably any other individual country that chooses to go to Mars could find their own source of water.

It also would have helped if the show had bothered to explain what Lukrum is before the fifth episode, because apparently Lukrum is the biggest oil company on Earth, with powerful influence over many governments. Leslie argues that Lukrum will soon control Mars, and she wants the other IMSF member countries to sanction Lukrum. There’s a long drawn out vote and she loses. Lukrum is just too powerful.

Mars season 2
(credit: National Geographic Channel)

This was where the black hole in the plot showed up yet again. Who is going to buy the resources? Right now the only thing that Lukrum may get on Mars is water, and they are only going to be able to sell it to other government space agencies that go to Mars, or maybe Olympus Town, which doesn’t need it. Maybe Lukrum is banking on the expectation that lots of other people will head to Mars once there is water, but that’s not an existing market, it’s a possibly maybe market at some point in the future.

Perhaps unconsciously Mars mirrors the space activist/enthusiast community in not answering the “and then a miracle occurs” part of the equation—every day at space conferences people talk about mining water on the Moon to supply a thriving space-based economy that does not exist. The show is repeating this same fallacy only on Mars instead of the Moon. As Planetary Resources most recently demonstrated, plans to mine resources in outer space to feed a non-existent market can collapse rather suddenly; Planetary Resources’ stock is now worthless.

The episode also featured more of the soap opera-type drama. Amelie experiences contractions two months early. First a dog is in peril and now a baby? Any moment I expected the pregnant woman to get stuck in an elevator. The other doctor performs a Cesarean to remove the baby, who is not crying. Also, back at the IMSF base, Robert has indicated that he’s going to go work for Lukrum, which actually wants to build stuff, as opposed to IMSF, which is just sitting in their hole. He announces to Hana that this is great because they can now start having a relationship. After a very unenthusiastic kiss, Hana tells him that there’s no chance of a relationship, because she’s committed to the mission.

The sixth and final episode featured some of the strongest drama segments. Lukrum has recovered from the power outage and has signed a deal with the Chinese government to build a base on Mars. But Lukrum commander Kurt is having no success at drilling for water, constantly hitting a layer of hard rock that burns out their drill bits. Kurt decides to take more drastic action and puts explosives down the hole. In a gesture of goodwill, he allows Marta to take more water samples.

Neither Lukrum or Kurt has bothered to inform IMSF that he’s about to use explosives on Mars. He successfully punches through the hard subsurface layer, but sets off a severe Marsquake that completely wrecks the Lukrum base and lightly damages Olympus Town. Kurt then heads back to the Lukrum base as Olympus Town mounts a rescue mission.

Back on Earth, the Lukrum CEO pays a desperate visit to Leslie Richardson. No longer arrogant and condescending, he wants to strike a deal: cover up the explosives in return for funding the IMSF operations. Leslie agrees, saying that she will not reveal what Lukrum did in return for money for Olympus Town.

Javier and Amelie’s baby has been in an induced coma for several months now. During the Marsquake her incubator begins to fail and Amelie has to intubate her and hope that she succeeds in breathing on her own.

For those of you who have been reading this far and have been bored by the exploits of Javier and Amelie, I’ll cut to the chase and say that, once again, Marvin the Dog survives. Kurt, however, is not so lucky: while stepping over his dead crewmen and climbing around the wrecked Lukrum base a piece of equipment shifts and punctures his suit and Kurt dies. This should surprise nobody who noticed that he was established as the cocky jackass from his very first scene.

One of the failures of Mars’ writing and acting is that none of the characters were interesting or sympathetic enough that you cared if they died. But Kurt was the one guy who seemed to be enjoying Mars, and in the last episode we see that he has a daughter back on Earth that he loves. A theme that has carried over from the first season is that Mars is a lousy place and nobody has any fun or joy or love, raising the question of why any of them are there at all. Kurt is the happy capitalist, raping the land. And he dies for his sins.

Throughout its second season Mars struggled to tell a story about the clash between the people who were on Mars because they wanted to explore the planet, and those who wanted to exploit it to make a buck. The dramatic segments were never very emotionally satisfying or gripping.

Eventually, Hana and her team make it to the Lukrum base and manage to rescue the survivors. Then, in a call back to Earth, she reveals that Lukrum’s use of explosives caused the Marsquake that killed a bunch of people and nearly wiped out both bases. Leslie rather snidely thanks the Lukrum CEO for the bank transfer that he made to IMSF in return for her silence.

In the final scene the show jumps ahead three years and we see the Olympus Town community—now joined by Javier and Amelie’s toddler daughter—watching remote sensing imagery of the first cloud to form as the result of their terraforming efforts.

Problems on Mars

One of the main themes during Mars’ second season was the conflict between science and nature, and capitalism and corporate power. But the drama sequences on Mars suffered from numerous problems that undercut this philosophical debate. Weak characterization and lackluster acting carried over from the first season and resulted in storylines that often fell flat—if the characters are not likeable, or at least respectable, then the audience will not be invested in their fates. By episode three we started to understand Marta’s drive and her commitment, and although it was not necessary for us to particularly like her, we never had much reason to empathize with her or want her to succeed. Similarly, it was hard to identify with the members of the IMSF team who spent much of the season being both hapless and depressed. If the writers wanted us to side with the scientists who wanted to protect Mars from being exploited, they did a bad job of making those characters worth rooting for.

The storylines also often created major contradictions. If Olympus Town exists to conduct science on Mars—and finding microbial life was the obvious major scientific discovery—then why is IMSF also engaging in terraforming that may wipe out or dramatically alter any life forms? At times the writers seemed to be unaware of their own plotlines. For example, in the fourth episode it was revealed that the microbes in the water become highly activated when the water is heated. But two episodes later, Marta learns that Lukrum is going to pump the extracted water through heated pipes, and she doesn’t point out that Lukrum will be creating a major problem for themselves. Finally, if Mars contains organisms that are activated by heat, wouldn’t the terraforming potentially result in the entire planet being overtaken by them? Will Mars actually be “terraformed,” or become teaming with life that has already proven hostile to humans?

A typical one-hour television show that relies upon advertising lasts only 42 minutes. Because each episode of Mars included documentary segments, that left substantially less time to tell a dramatic story, and characterization and context got excised or ignored. Throughout its second season Mars struggled to tell a story about the clash between the people who were on Mars because they wanted to explore the planet, and those who wanted to exploit it to make a buck. The dramatic segments were never very emotionally satisfying or gripping. The documentary segments, however, were more powerful. They just didn’t focus much on Mars.

Next: Part 2 will address the documentary segments of National Geographic’s Mars.


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