Who Knew Traveling to Mars Could Seem So Dull?

National Geographic docudrama botches badly.


'Mars,' National Geographic Channel

Mars. National Geographic Channel. Monday, November 14, 9 p.m.

Over the years, Hollywood has populated Mars with hungry bat-rat-spiders, horny little bald guys, decapitationist ghosts, and even dorky little nerd children who look like Pia Zadora. But now, the National Geographic Channel's miniseries Mars will change forever the way we think about the planet, for it boldly goes where no man has gone before, into the very cosmic bowels of tedium and ennui.

A weird attempt to blend documentary and sci-fi, Mars is an exquisite botch of both. Its only real accomplishment is to set back the reputation of executive producer Ron Howard to the days when he was murdering the mommies of adorable little baby birds on The Andy Griffith Show.

Mars is structured, to use a far more elegant term than is actually warranted, as a mockumentary about a manned mission to Mars in 2033. About half the show is devoted to the fictional mission, half to the real work of "pioneers" in the field, particularly Elon Musk and his mercantilist interplanetary-colonization SpaceX boondoggle, for which Mars often seems a cruelly overlong infomercial.

The National Geographic Channel has been bragging that the mockumentary mix "will redefine television storytelling by combining feature film-quality scripted drama and visual effects with best-in-class documentary sequences to drive forward a cohesive, edge-of-your-seat story."

I'd say it will more likely redefine Hollywood accounting practices by substituting mundane interviews for scripts and action sequences, and obviating the need for actors with emotional ranges much beyond those of the faces on Mount Rushmore. Both halves of Mars consist largely of talking heads heaped upon talking heads, and not in an interesting Khmer Rouge way.

The "pioneers" mostly seem to be vying for the title of King of the Obvious. Genuflect before the insight of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who observes that Mars "is more hostile to life than any place on Earth," courageously defying the common wisdom that a near-vacuum atmosphere devoid of oxygen and nighttime temperatures of a hundred below zero are practically synonyms for "live long and prosper."

The fictional side of the show is, if anything, worse, consisting largely of interviews like this one, in which the astronauts are questioned about their captain.

Reporter: "Who is Ben Sawyer?"

Astronaut No. 1, in profound tone: "Ben Sawyer is our commander."

Astronaut No. 2, in even more profound tone: "Ben Sawyer is a member of the team."

Those astronauts have names, by the way, but there's no need to keep track of them; characterizations in Mars do not even rise to the level of cardboard, more like a sodden wad of toilet paper. The belabored cast includes Ben Cotton (Battlestar Galactica), Alberto Ammann (Narcos), Robert Foucault (Django Unchained) and Korean-American rocker JiHae playing twins, or maybe triplets—who can tell?

To the extent the cast escapes the omnipresent interviews for a story, it doesn't amount to much. The crew gets in a rocket and flies to Mars; stuff breaks; they fix it; or they don't. There are occasional scenes of the astronauts trooping around the awesome Martian landscape, shot in Morocco, but certainly no more awesome than those shot in Jordan for Matt Damon's 2015 marooned-in-space drama The Martian, which was a more engaging work in every way.

For that matter, a NASA reality show would be more engaging. Remember Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who outfitted herself with a BB gun, a two-pound mallet, pepper spray, surgical tubing and absorbent diapers—so she wouldn't have to make any bathroom stops—and then drove 900 miles and five states to straighten out a rival for the affections of another space cadet? Oh, wait. Her lawyer says the part about the diapers is "an absolute fabrication" and those were just pee-soaked diapers her kids left in the car a couple of years earlier. Well, as Emily Litella and James Comey always say, never mind.