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41° Good Afternoon

‘Mars’ review: Ron Howard’s inspiring exploration

This ambitious, six-part miniseries, half-drama and half-documentary, follows the first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033 (Credit: National Geographic Channel)


WHEN | WHERE Premieres Monday, Nov. 14, at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel


WHAT IT’S ABOUT This Ron Howard and Brian Grazer six-part miniseries — based on the Stephen Petranek book, “How We’ll Live on Mars” — is essentially two programs in one. The first is about a fictional International Mars Science Foundation which, in the year 2033, finally sends a manned (and womanned) ship to Mars, which they will prepare for colonization. It features Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), as the captain of the Daedalus, whose crew must endure extreme hardships on the Red Planet. That’s interspersed with standard documentary fare — featuring scientists, experts and entrepreneurs, like SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who explains his reusable rocket program, and why Mars colonization isn’t just possible, but necessary.

MY SAY Because Musk is one of the most interesting people on the planet, and may one day be one of the most interesting people on another planet, there’s no feasible way that the TV series that embraces — no, make that bear-hugs — his vision shouldn’t be as well. “Mars” is interesting, and much more: Quirky, funky, earnest, intelligent, engaging and occasionally melodramatic. Or as Ben says in voice-over, in his best James Tiberius Kirk: “We dream down to our bones, our cells. That’s who we are. Making a home here was humanity’s only chance to go on dreaming.”

As noted, quirk and Kirk writ large.

Musk’s Mars obsession is based on a prophetic directive — if we hope to survive as a species, we’d better find another place to do it. The planet closest to Earth, Venus, won’t do. That leaves the second closest one. But the devil is in the details. “Mars” is about those details.

As a viewing experience, “Mars” is unorthodox, but probably had no choice to be otherwise. Half-dramatization, half standard-issue doc, this blends both halves in an attempt to make a whole — leading viewers to the very notion that Mars colonization could actually happen one day. This is one of those “if you can’t dream it, you can’t do it” efforts that — despite the occasional penchant for cheese  — actually succeeds.

At first, the dramatizations are laughers, abetted by dialogue like “we knew Mars wouldn’t welcome us with open arms.” But they will grow on you, and so will Ben — a square-jawed, clear-eyed dreamer who watched too much “Star Trek” as a kid (didn’t we all?) and maybe a few old Gary Cooper movies on TCM. In the doc segment, Ann Druyan — co-writer of PBS’ great “Cosmos,” and widow of Carl Sagan — gets straight to the point when she wonders whether “people can survive on a planet that we’re not made for.” The dramatizations push that point hard and, at least in the first two hours, don’t reach a conclusion.

“Mars” can also at moments feel like an infomercial for SpaceX, and I suppose this is the part of the review where I point out that Musk and his rockets are not without detractors. Should we not attempt to first save our own planet before rushing off to another one, which — based on our track record here — we will probably wreck too? Also inherent in Musk’s Mars-or-bust ambition is the gloomy thought that we’ve already crossed that Rubicon anyway. Why bother with Earth? Let’s just go to Mars.

But “Mars” isn’t a downer, but an upper — and a particularly nice looking upper too. As Ben kneels down, then claws at the Martian dust, you too might just feel the slightest rush: Could this one day be possible? Well, could it?

BOTTOM LINE A particularly handsome production that dares viewers to dream the impossible — and dares them to watch some sporadically cheesy dramatizations, too.


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