MARS | Docs/ology

MARS

Director: Everardo Gout, Stephen Cragg, Ashley Way

Runtime: 60 minutes

We humans have long been fascinated by the Red Planet, our planetary neighbor a mere 33.9 million miles away. The ancient Sumerians believed it was a god. Some 19th-century astronomers insisted it was hatched with canals. From H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to Bug Bunny’s Marvin the Martian, we’ve speculated about what might live there and its intentions.

According to National Geographic’s six-episode hybrid series – alternating scripted and documentary sequences – Mars, the truth may be a little more prosaic, but no less fascinating. And in the show’s alien folds, it draws our attention back to some of the most pressing problems we face here on earth.

National Geographic’s series, now in its second season, is a curious creature. Much of its runtime is dedicated to an imagined future not too-far-distant: The International Mars Science Foundation, an international agency, sends a band of scientists, engineers and explorers to the planet to form a colony—the first tentative foothold on Mars. And as the colonists probe the planet for signs of alien life (they already found a bit in season 1), they also hope to eventually change its character, turning it into a truly habitable planet. A second home if you will.

As the second season opens, the IMSF colony has company—not a race of Martians, but rather a business conglomerate known as Lukrum. When its leaders look at the planet, they see a business opportunity. The wealth found underneath the red earth might well prove to be enormous.

Obviously, these two competing colonies butt heads plenty as the season wears on, and the show’s fictional segments offer plenty of drama. But here’s the thing that sets the show apart from other sci-fi dramas: its fictions are grounded in fact—supported, on camera, by legions of scientists and experts. And even the narrative dynamics we see in play get real-world, earth-bound parallels.

For instance: As the show introduces us to Lukrum and its crew, it whisks us to an offshore drilling platform located in the Norwegian north—a place that feels nearly as remote and hostile as Mars itself—and allows us to get to know someone who spends weeks at a time working there, away from his family. In the third episode, when exobiologist/geologist Marta Kamen strands herself and nearly dies in the middle of a Martian nowhere, we meet another daring scientist who explores the ice sheets of Greenland—risking his life to study climate change.

“Mars often functions as a great mirror for the concerns we have on earth that are ecological and political,” says Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the bestselling Mars trilogy. Not only do the show’s experts unpack how its fictional elements might well be doable and practical in a few decades, but they outline the challenges Mars colonists might face—not just the physical, but the emotional, sociological and even political. And Mars’ second-season narrative tension—the push-pull contest between science and industry—have their own backers in the show’s panel of experts, from environmental activist Monica Araya to conservative guru Newt Gingrich.

The show’s big scientific thinkers were the most fascinating to me, many suggesting that despite the inherent stresses felt between science and commerce, a venture as grand as colonizing Mars ultimately needs both: Scientists to study and explore, and colonizers with a gleam of a better life in their eye.

“All colonies throughout human history have faced the tension between the development of a new society and preservation,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, astrobiology chair for the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center. “On Mars, those tensions are absolutely, exponentially greater.”

Mars offers a unique, grounded look at space exploration and shows us how it relates to those of us whose feet will always be planted on earth. And frankly, I’m excited to see more.

The Season 2 premiere of MARS aired November 12 on National Geographic and can be streamed on NationalGeographic.com

— written by Paul Asay