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‘Mars’ Review: Nat Geo’s Scripted-Documentary Hybrid Makes Fleeing Earth More Appealing Than Ever

While fleeing this planet for a new life on Mars may be tempting right now for more than just scientific reasons, Nat Geo's intriguing effort to show us how such a trip could actually happen proves convincing on its own.

Sammi Rotibi as Robert Foucault a Nigerian mechanical engineer and roboticist. The global event series MARS premieres November 14 at 8/9c in the U.S. and internationally Sunday November 13 on the National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

There are two key elements determining how much you’ll appreciate Nat Geo’s new event series, “Mars,” a hybrid of scripted and documentary storytelling that blends present-day space footage and expert interviews with a fictional narrative about the first manned mission to Mars:

  • First, where you prioritize finding a new planet to sustain human life in light of recent events. Considering the damaging-to-catastrophic ecological effects coming our way thanks to the newly elected officials’ stance on climate change — a.k.a., How important is it that the human race has somewhere to go when Earth is totally fucked? — we think this might be up there on your list of concerns.
  • Second, how much you like the idea of watching “The Martian” without Matt Damon’s natural charisma.

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The latter point speaks specifically to the scripted portion of “Mars,” which places great emphasis on being technically proficient in order to blend as seamlessly as possible with the documentary footage set in present day. All told, “Mars” is the story of how we will one day reach the Red Planet, told with the scientific research of today as well as the speculative capabilities of the future. We watch as a group of astronauts shoots into space in order to colonize Mars, and then listen to what’s being done today in order to ensure this adventure by 2033. Thankfully, the limited series is more compelling than it sounds on paper, so if you enjoyed watching Matt Damon nerd out in order to survive on the Red Planet but could’ve done without all those jokes, odds are you’ll enjoy seeing a handful of fake astronauts do the same here.

Ben Cotton as Ben Sawyer the American mission commander and systems engineer on the Daedalus. The global event series MARS premieres November 14 at 8/9c in the U.S. and internationally Sunday November 13 on the National Geographic Channel

That being said, the narrative component of the limited series wouldn’t be able to hold an audience on its own. Though surprising enough in its stark reality to keep viewers from knowing what’s coming, the story set in 2033 cleverly utilizes our inherent curiosity with exploring the unknown; a curiosity consistently piqued by the documentary elements that cover everything from privatized space exploration plans (Elon Musk and SpaceX provide intriguing information in the pilot) to the lives and goals of current astronauts. Interviews with Scott Kelly, an astronaut who spent a year in space in order to collect scientific data for future space exploration — including a potential manned trip to Mars — and his daughter prove as emotionally gripping as they are educational.

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The same cannot be said for the scripted characters. Similar efforts to make them empathetic only go as far as the dangerous implications of anyone making this journey. There’s nothing specific to these created men and women that gets you choked up or worried about their survival. Instead, you’re simply concerned with whether or not such an endeavor can be successful in 2033, if not sooner.

And that’s where the first point (above) comes into play. Though the series deserves considerable respect for deftly balancing the two seemingly contradictory storytelling devices — credit to the vision of its many producers, writers, directors and editors — the timing of its release weighs heavily on a world drastically different from when this was cut together. Suddenly, a mission to Mars seems vital, or at least much more important than before a climate change denier was elected leader of the free world.

Some of the crew exploring Mars. The global event series MARS premieres on the National Geographic Channel in November 2016

This kind of acknowledgement of reality is enough to make you chuckle at the notion world leaders would join forces to found the International Mars Science Foundation, where Russia, China, America and more countries share engineering and scientific intelligence without reserve. But it also makes the gravely serious tone of the series more appropriate than ever. As of November 8, interpretations of existing stories have changed along with the world around them. “Mars” may not have been conceived as an urgent call to action, but it can certainly be read that way by anyone watching the premiere (which lands less than a week after election day).

On the one hand, it’s a shame a disruption of this magnitude overwhelms such an ambitious and earnest effort of its own design. On the other, any additional gravity provided to this story certainly doesn’t hurt it. Consuming “Mars” with one foot planted firmly in reality is how the series was meant to be seen, even if that foot is more eager than ever to be standing on red soil.

Grade: B+

“Mars” premieres Monday, November 14 at 9pm on the National Geographic Channel. Episode 1 is now streaming for free.

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