The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISDC 2024

Stars on Mars
“Stars on Mars” was filmed in the Australian desert. A group of celebrities lived in this habitat and each week they voted somebody out the airlock. (credit: Fox)

Red planet reality

Bookmark and Share

Here we go. All over again.

We don’t know what the winner of “Stars on Mars” will get, but it won’t be a trip to the Red Planet.

On June 5, Fox premieres a new reality show called “Stars on Mars.” The premise is that a group of C-list celebrities are stuck together in a simulated Mars habitat and go on various missions in fake spacesuits to compete for prizes. William Shatner—Captain Kirk himself—is back in “mission control,” overseeing the entire effort. This is the latest in a long list of space-themed reality shows, most of which never blasted off.

Let’s be real: reality television is anything but. The drama and conflict on screen is often staged, encouraged, or created in the editing room. The contestants, of course, are not on Mars; the show was filmed in the same corner of the Australian desert where a crew filmed Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, four decades ago. “Stars on Mars” was only revealed in April and then put on the schedule this month. It is now the thirteenth time that somebody has attempted to create a space-themed reality TV show, and this will only be the second one to air. The other ones probably failed because they tried to make a space flight as the prize for the winner. We don’t know what the winner of “Stars on Mars” will get, but it won’t be a trip to the Red Planet.

The last time we were here was in 2020, when the Hollywood publication Deadline reported about a show called “Space Hero.” The producers for that show had reportedly “secured a seat on a 2023 mission to the International Space Station” for the winner of their show’s competition. It never happened, and no winner of the show is flying to the ISS this year.

The trend began two decades earlier, with what we could call the “Russian Phase” of these projects. Back in 2000 there was the first of a long string of announced reality television shows that would culminate in a flight into space for a lucky winner. The first one, or at least the first one that became public, was “Destination: Mir” proposed in 2000 by Mark Burnett, the producer of numerous successful reality television shows, most notably “Survivor.” Burnett wanted to fly the winner of a reality show competition to the Russian space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. NBC even announced that the show would be on its 2001 schedule. After the Mir space station was deorbited, Burnett renamed the show “Destination: Space,” featuring a flight to the International Space Station instead. The reputed price tag for the show was $50 million. Burnett’s project never made it to television.

After that, other projects were announced. Amsterdam-based MirCorp indicated they had plans for a show called “Ancient Astronaut,” which quickly faded into obscurity, like most of MirCorp’s other efforts. The company then worked on another television project known as “Celebrity Mission,” which was supposed to put NSYNC singer Lance Bass into orbit, but the Bass mission turned farcical as the singer went to Russia but was unable to pay his bills. (Some 17 years later, Bass poked fun at himself as the proprietor of “Lance Bass Space Camp” in the now-canceled ABC sitcom “Single Parents.”) A European project called “Space Commander” was also proposed and quickly disappeared. In fall 2002, Russia’s TV1 television channel announced that it had struck a deal to send the winner of a Russian reality TV show into space in 2003. TV1 was supposedly working with Mark Burnett, but again after an initial press announcement, nothing more was heard from the network about this project. Then in July 2003, Virginia-based Space Adventures announced that it had signed a deal to purchase two seats on a Soyuz ISS mission. One option the company was exploring was a reality TV show. However, nothing more was heard about that plan either. All of these shows would have used the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the International Space Station.

Anybody can write a Hollywood press release, but very few people can raise tens of millions of dollars of capital to fund a television production.

These early failed proposals inspired a United Kingdom production team which realized that they didn’t need to launch anybody into space at all, they only needed to pretend to do so. In 2005, Channel 4’s “Space Cadet” tricked contestants into thinking they were being launched into space to a Russian space station. The show deliberately picked gullible people and eliminated anybody who might figure out the ruse too early. "Aw man," one contestant said upon learning the truth. "We’re not astronauts. We're just asses." Notably, “Space Cadet” is the only other space-themed reality show that made it into production, until now.

Stars on Mars
The “stars” consist of a bunch of little-known celebrities. William Shatner wisely stayed back on Earth. (credit: Fox)

The late 2000s was the start of the second round of reality show proposals, the “suborbital rocket” phase. “Space Hero’s” creator was trying to come up with a space-themed show in 2008 that never progressed very far and it took him 12 years to try again. In fall 2013, Burnett was back with “Space Race,” also for NBC, but this time the prize would be a flight aboard a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. That show plan also folded after a fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo during testing. Virgin Galactic still has not started tourist flights—any day now—and since that time other space tourist companies such as XCOR have gone belly up. Blue Origin has developed a space tourist capability that could possibly support a reality television show, but so far there has been no public talk about a show using Blue’s New Shepard rocket.

The most recent round has been the “SpaceX phase” of reality show proposals. There was Sony Pictures TV’s “Milky Way Mission.” Bas Lansdorp’s Mars One (remember them?) was also supposed to result in a reality TV show produced by Lionsgate TV, but Mars One declared bankruptcy in early 2019. In January 2020, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who reportedly booked a flight to fly in a SpaceX Starship around the Moon, announced a documentary and contest to find a woman 20 years or older to be his “girlfriend” on the flight. This announcement resulted in such a public backlash that two weeks later Maezawa canceled the project and apologized on Twitter.

Anybody can write a Hollywood press release, but very few people can raise tens of millions of dollars of capital to fund a television production. And a reality TV show involving actual spaceflight has in many ways always been a contradiction in terms. The appeal of reality television for TV networks (or now streaming services) has long been that they can be produced substantially cheaper than scripted dramas. There are no expensive stars to pay, and the writing team also costs a lot less. Often the shows are filmed in pre-existing locations such as a mansion where a bachelor hands out roses. The production certainly has to modify the location for filming purposes (usually adding a hot tub and a lot of cameras), but that can be much cheaper than building multiple sets on multiple sound stages.

All of the previous space-themed reality shows ran into the classic problems of accessing space: cost and schedule. Even when both are excellent by space standards, they remain prohibitive for the reality show market. Russian Soyuz seats, when available, were never cheap. A seat on a SpaceX Dragon capsule is still going to cost tens of millions of dollars. As Jeff Foust wrote in SpaceNews, the “prize” for “Space Hero” would have cost the program anywhere from $50 to 65 million, and that’s before the production costs were added in. A ticket to space is a lot more expensive than the half-million-dollar prize for the last survivor on an island show. Insurance, assuming a production company could actually get it, would also be expensive.

In “Modern Family” Winter played the overachieving nerd who went to Caltech; in the trailer for “Stars on Mars,” she thinks that Lance Armstrong is an astronaut.

Add to that the problem that the big event cannot be timed to meet a specific evening television time slot. A launch to the International Space Station is dictated by orbital dynamics, not the number of eyeballs staring at TV screens, and Florida’s weather may not cooperate. Even a suborbital launch from New Mexico or Texas could also present problems—it would not fit easily into Eastern or Western US time zones.

So “Stars on Mars” appears to have learned the lesson that Channel 4’s “Space Cadet” taught back in 2005: just fake it.

Stars on Mars
Lance, not Neil. (credit: Fox)

Shatner, who besides being the best starship captain that ever lived, also flew to the edge of space in 2021; he is 92 years old and still the hardest working man in showbiz. The rest of the “stars” are a somewhat odd assortment of people you have probably never heard of. The only ones I recognized were Ronda Rousey, Ariel Winter, and Lance Armstrong. Rousey, a former professional wrestler and actor, was once slated to star in a remake of the 1989 Patrick Swayze movie Road House (where Swayze played “a Ph.D. bouncer” brought in to clean up a rowdy bar, spouting memorable lines like “It’s my way or the highway,” and “Pain don’t hurt”). Rousey can probably lift any of the contestants over her head, even in Earth gravity. Don’t make her mad. Armstrong, of course, is the disgraced former cyclist caught using performance-enhancing drugs after denying it for years. Winter last appeared on the long-standing hit show “Modern Family,” where she played the middle child, Alex. She now sports very long, fiery red hair which would be problematic in a weightless environment, but perfect for the red dunes of Mars. In “Modern Family” she played the overachieving nerd who went to Caltech; in the trailer for “Stars on Mars,” she thinks that Lance Armstrong is an astronaut.

We don’t know yet what prize “Stars on Mars” will award its winner. Maybe it will be a lifetime supply of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. At least some of the celebrities appear to be having a good time, rappelling down cliffs in spacesuits. In one clip they are shown doing realistic Mars-related activities like using a flamethrower in a cave. Are they supposed to be on Mars, or battling xenomorphs on LV-426? As for the competition, I’ll only be happy if at some point one of them gets a lirpa and the other an ahn-woon and they battle in ritual combat.

Stars on Mars
If we're lucky, maybe the contestants on “Stars on Mars” will engage in ritual combat in the desert. My money’s on Kirk. (credit: Paramount)

The last time there was a TV writers strike it resulted in a wave of awful reality shows, some of which are still with us. Today an ongoing writer’s strike may result in more schlock like “Stars on Mars” in our future. Will this show be terrible? Yes. Will it be cringeworthy? Certainly. Will I still watch it? Probably.

I want to see Captain Kirk fight a Gorn.

Note: we are using a new commenting system, which may require you to create a new account.