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‘Mars’ saga offers hybrid of documentary, drama

  • NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC / AP

    Ben Cotton plays American astronaut Ben Sawyer in “Mars” on the National Geographic channel.

NEW YORK >> The brave Daedalus crew of six is traveling to Mars.

Their trip will take months. But once they land, their plan isn’t to grab some rocks and hurry back to Earth. They aim to make Mars home.

Such is the saga of “Mars,” an innovative hybrid of drama and documentary premiering Monday at 7 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel (with the first of its six weekly hours now available for free streaming ).

The voyage takes place in 2033, but don’t take this saga as futuristic pie-in-the-sky. It’s worth noting that 2033 is just 17 years away and that for many viewers, 1999 — just 17 years ago — seems pretty recent.

Besides, this sci-fi odyssey is grounded in hard facts and scientific rigor, as reflected in the unscripted documentary sections clearly labeled “2016.”

“Getting to Mars will be risky, dangerous, uncomfortable, but it’ll be the greatest adventure ever in human history,” says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, among many farsighted “big thinkers” heard from in the series who thinks there’s money as well as glory to be found in Mars colonization.

But this is more than manifest destiny.

Andy Weir, whose novel “The Martian” inspired the 2015 film of the same name, voices an even more compelling motivation: hedging earthly bets. “We need to go to Mars because it protects us from extinction,” he declares.

“Mars” has brought together a number of collaborators. Besides its scientific consultants, the series claims director Everardo Gout, Justin Wilkes as showrunner and, among his fellow executive producers, Oscar-winning Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

How in the world did the project come together? Initially, from conversations between various parties who each proposed “Let’s do Mars,” according to Grazer, “though at first we didn’t really know what we were doing. ‘Mars’ implies so much; it ignited some dream in each of us.”

Howard says: “The series was a balancing act. It had a documentary component, which is always a question mark at the beginning. Then came fully scripting and shooting the drama, which was meant to take the ideas we were learning and personalizing them. We wanted to be as cinematic and propulsive as we could be, but verisimilitude was a grounding principle and an obligation.”

“It’s in the zeitgeist right now,” says Wilkes. “There’s a lot of people thinking about Mars, and a lot of engineering and science being put into it, both on the private industry side and the public side.”

Cut to 2033.

“Some of us, if not all of us, will almost certainly die on this mission,” Ben Sawyer, Daedalus mission commander, reminds his crew.

This may sound gloomy, but Ben Cotton, who plays Sawyer, hails astronauts as inherently upbeat.

“It was interesting to jump into that perspective because as an actor you get trained to go toward the turmoil, the darker end of things. It was cool to be in that positive space,” he says.

“Astronauts are passionate, but they’re not crazy,” adds series consultant Mae C. Jemison, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992. “They’re dreamers and have great imaginations, but at the same time they’re very practical.”

Jemison (to whom the producers paid homage by christening the Daedalus computer system the Mars Analytic Executor, or MAE) worked with producers, writers and cast to share her out-of-this-world experience. One tip: In the heat of the moment, don’t get hot and bothered.

“When you’re working an emergency, that’s when you get calmer,” she advises. “If you shout over each other you’re dead, because you don’t know what’s going on.”

As scripted, the mission (with Moroccan desert portraying Mars’ surface) is jammed with emergencies and casualties.

“But in the series we are taking an overall optimistic view that this is something that humanity can do, should do, is doing and will do,” Wilkes says. “It’s the equivalent of the first Jamestown colony. History is repeating itself. It might not be easy and it might not be pretty, but we’re not giving up.”

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