Life on Mars has always been a standard science fiction topic, but Season 2 of National Geographic’s “Mars” shows how real and attainable that focus has become. The first season of the docudrama series aired in 2016 and was notable for its blending of fiction and science-based documentary, a format the show has maintained and improved.
Season 2 picks up several years into the development of Olympus Town, a colony of astronauts working with the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), a fictional group. Close quarters living and the extreme environment take clear tolls on characters and their relationships, especially as love interests are established and a number of astronauts fall victim to the perils of space. But for a show titled “Mars,” a significant amount of the footage is of tundras, deserts, and oceans on Earth, as well as people who are not astronauts, but who are currently working to one day put men and women on our neighboring planet, like Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and even Bill Nye. The choice to merge documentary and drama was pioneered in “Mars” Season 1 and continues, polished, in Season 2.
Episode four of the series, titled “Contagion,” offers a balanced fusion of these filmmaking approaches using a dual storyline; a pathogen outbreak in the Mars colony parallels the recent emergence of anthrax in the thawing Siberian tundra. Scripted portions of the show are spliced seamlessly with iPhone footage from Yamal Peninsula natives, and the story of a Russian environmentalist whistleblower highlights our lack of knowledge and caution in new climates. While a pathogen originating on Mars assumes extraterrestrial life and may seem far-fetched, real-world scientific analogies punctuate and verify events that unfold in the drama. The documentary segments never seem to interrupt the flow of narrative and only deepen moments of suspense.
A less speculative example is the comparison of Martian soil to untapped Arctic oil reserves, two environments where the exploitation of resources entails physical danger, isolation, and ethical dilemmas. An interplanetary enterprise called Lukrum Industries is second to send a colonizing force to the Red Planet, but strictly with profit in mind and not scientific discovery. Tension inevitably grows between the Lukrum miners and scientists of IMSF as resources are contested and ideologies clash. Clearly some homegrown issues were left unsolved before launch, which lead to some sneaky politicking and the first ever Martian brawl.
Remove the non-fiction interviews and weigh-ins by scientific experts and you are still left with a vibrant drama about Mars – however, these elements show how Earth-like our problems on another planet may be. Nat Geo took a chance with a hybrid format not typically seen on TV, but accomplished what sci-fi does best by making informed projections about future technologies while questioning decisions made in the present. The narrative/documentary ratio is perfectly balanced and makes life on Mars seem believable, within reach, and really fun to watch.
“Mars” Season 2 premieres tonight, Monday, November 12 at 9pm EST.