It doesn’t take very long for Colin Stetson’s score for the latest Hulu drama “The First” to announce itself. The opening credits sequence is short, but on the strength of a striking visual and the musical force of a rocket engine, the series gets off to an impressive start.
The composer behind “Hereditary” (music that’s haunting in a completely different way), Stetson’s work as a saxophonist helps anchor this story of humans and space in something slightly unfamiliar to those who watch these kinds of futuristic stories. Where previous tales of astronauts have leaned on triumphant brass and heavy strings, there’s a spareness to a lot of what Stetson puts forth here.
Stetson’s work on the series isn’t always the kind that draws that kind of attention. In the pivotal fifth episode, the music works as a complement to a river of memories that lead a number of key characters to their respective parts in this unfolding Mars saga. Although those sax arpeggios are sometimes a strong underline to some sequences of intense uncertainty, they sometimes flutter around the action at a breathy volume barely above a whisper.
If there’s one scene that best encapsulates how this score builds on something special, it’s a key sequence in Episode 2. Seeing Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) comfort two grieving parents is enough to stir all the complex anger and sorrow the show is trying to muster. But while he consoles this couple, his words are matched by two bits of breathtaking sensory accompaniment: The view of the Aurora from space, with its atmospheric rainbow, is scored by a transcendently gorgeous piano piece.
Appropriately titled “Aurora Borealis,” it’s a single track that gathers up all the emotional peaks and valleys that are also spread out elsewhere in the other seven installments of “The First.” “Aurora Borealis” is a soaring piece, tinged with that same combination of awe and danger that the astronauts within the show face. It’s the kind of majestic sound your own brain might generate when seeing some giant celestial body peeking over the horizon. Gentle and knowing as Hagerty’s words, it’s one of the ways that the show, in turn, convinces the audience that following the trip to Mars will also be worth the ride.
This is music playing with ideas large and small in the same way that creator Beau Willimon and episode directors like Agnieszka Holland and Deniz Gamze Ergüven weave them into the fabric of the series. If you’ve been fortunate enough to take the eight-episode plunge into the unknown, it’s a specific thrill to hear how much of the show comes back through listening. If the show is still in your queue, these 18 tracks might be enough to get you to hit “Play.”
Listen to the full soundtrack (with the hopeful title of “The First, Vol. 1”) below:
“The First” is now available to stream on Hulu.