Mars Dreaming

Since the publication of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells in 1897, popular imagination has been drawn to the idea of humans travelling to, and colonising, the planet Mars. Every decade new books and films are released exploring scenarios about whether life exists or ever existed on Mars, whether Martians would be benign or hostile, and whether the planet could sustain human life, should we be able to figure out a way to get there and settle. Although we have landed men on the moon, that journey was a mere 384,000 kilometres from Earth, whereas Mars is 54.6 million kilometres away.

The latest Mars dreaming is the eight-episode series created by the British television network Channel 4, and US streaming service Hulu, The First, starring Sean Penn. It was created by Beau Willimon, the writer-producer behind the American adaptation of the BBC’s House of Cards.

The drama in the premiere season of The First takes place in the not-too-distant future and focuses on the astronauts, their families, and the ground crew, rather on the flight or the experiences on Mars. Rob Thomas, of the Capital Times, wrote:

Beau Willimon seems to be atoning for House of Cards with his new Hulu series The First. Whereas Netflix’s first big hit often focused on the worst about humanity—not just evil but ambition, greed and weakness—his new show, The First, reminds us of the best about us.

In The First, Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been recently replaced as commander of the space rocket Providence for the initial manned mission to Mars. At home, he watches on a monitor as the launch catastrophically fails due to an infinitesimal technical error. Laz Ingram (played by Natascha McElhone), CEO of Vista, the private aerospace program responsible for the project, is tasked to justify the funding for a second attempt. Hagerty has been estranged from his daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), since the death of her mother, but the two are working at reconciliation.

Joe Dolce’s columns appear in every Quadrant.
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When the second Mars launch is approved, Ingram gives Hagerty a second chance, asking him to lead the new mission. Hagerty had been the “thirteenth man to walk on the moon” and his daughter blames the sustained anxiety her family suffered, of not knowing if he would return, for her mother’s depression and death. Denise is also a recovering addict who has been through rehabilitation. The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which has already flown to Mars and back, malfunctions, creating concerns that the second trip will now be too great a risk. One of the five astronauts suffers health problems and has to be replaced at the last minute.

Ingram and her engineers discover a way to repair the MAV remotely and the mission is again green-lighted. Father and daughter have a violent disagreement over the mission and she runs away from home, returning to drugs. When she is arrested, rather than call her father she contacts Ingram, who bails her out, allowing her to stay temporarily, to keep some distance from her father. Ingram’s motivation here is also to protect her new commander from family stress, which was the main cause of his removal from the first mission. Hagerty is willing to resign from the project for his daughter, but she decides to break all contact with him. With no way to resolve the impasse with her, Hagerty agrees to command the second Mars mission. Season One closes with the successful launch of Providence 2.

To appreciate The First, it helps to look at the evolution of the mythology about Mars in the cultural imagination.

Between the publication of The War of the Worlds in 1897, and Orson Welles’s famous Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of it at Halloween in 1938, which many radio listeners thought was an actual Martian invasion, causing utter panic in the streets, there was not much serious interest in Mars.

In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs released a book titled Princess of Mars, the same year he published Tarzan of the Apes. Both were successful and Burroughs went on to write twenty-three more novels about Tarzan and ten more in the Mars series.

In the nascent world of film-making of 1918, there was a Danish four-minute short called Das Himmelschiff in which a professor uses a magical powder to reach the Red Planet, where he encounters a threatening creature and attacking trees. It was inspired by Georges Méliès’s 1902 five-minute French short, Le Voyage dans la Lune, memorable for the scene where the bullet-like rocket capsule pokes the “man in the moon” in the eye.

But it wasn’t until 1948, when German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who had recently moved to America, published The Mars Project, a technical and scientifically well-considered plan for a manned expedition to Mars, that the US government began to take the idea of Mars exploration seriously.

Von Braun had been part of the Nazis’ V-2 rocket program during the Second World War. He moved to the US, along with 1500 other German scientists, between 1945 and 1959, during Operation Paperclip, and began working for the US Army on intermediate-range ballistic missiles. He eventually spearheaded the technology that launched NASA’s first satellite, Explorer I, and also became the chief scientist of the Saturn V launch vehicle that powered the Apollo rockets.

As a child, he had been inspired by Kurd Lasswitz’s 1897 book Auf Zwei Planeten (Two Planets), a German sci-fi classic, which described a race of Martians travelling between their planet and Earth using a material that resisted gravity. Von Braun became an advocate of a manned mission to Mars. The Mars Project was called “the most influential book on planning human missions to Mars” in a report prepared for the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.

In the decades following this publication, Hollywood began to timidly approach the idea of films about Mars with humorous movies such as Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1965).

Von Braun had also campaigned for establishing a lunar base on the Moon. After the Soviets launched Sputnik, initiating the space race, he presented his plan for a projected lunar landing by  1965. President Kennedy, looking for an important project to galvanise the American people, took it up and, by 1969, Americans were walking on the moon. This extraordinary event awakened the possibility that a trip to Mars was next.

One of the most memorable and frightening sci-fi films I watched as a youngster was Invaders from Mars (1953). It is told from the point of view of a boy who sees a flying saucer crash into a sand quarry behind his house. Later, he discovers that his parents and other neighbours, local police and politicians have stitched scars on the backs of their necks where crystal implants have been inserted by aliens, creating cold, unemotional puppet-like versions of everyone he knows, now doing the bidding of the Martians. I hid behind my seat during the scenes of the alien device with the long needle-like probe penetrating the back of his mother’s neck!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) presented a similar scenario: alien spores fall from space, turning into large pod plants and anybody getting too close becomes replicated with exact copies of themselves—except devoid of human emotion. This film was responsible for the popular slang term “pod person”, one who goes along mindlessly with the crowd.

These mind-control movies came out during the peak of the “red scare” of the 1950s. Critic and author Victoria O’Donnell wrote:

“Red,” of course, was the buzzword for Communists throughout the fifties, and, like the Martians, the “Reds” were different from Americans. The Martians were represented as cold, devious, ruthless, and dangerous, characteristics commonly associated with the Soviet Communists.

Rod Serling, in his popular weekly television series The Twilight Zone, dealt with Mars metaphorically. In 1960, in “People Are Alike All Over”, an injured astronaut landing on Mars encounters friendly locals, human-like, who treat his wounds and offer him a well-equipped residence—which turns out to be an enclosure in a Martian zoo. Throughout his life, Serling spoke out against racism and McCarthyism but was forbidden by television censorship from addressing these issues directly, for fear of alienating sponsors. His widow, Carol Serling, said, “but with The Twilight Zone, sponsors basically just didn’t understand what he was doing”.

O’Donnell says:

By one estimate, five hundred [science fiction] film features and shorts were produced between 1948 and 1962 [as] science fiction films presented indirect expressions of anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or a Communist invasion of America. These fears were expressed in various guises, such as aliens using mind control, monstrous mutants unleashed by radioactive fallout, radiation’s terrible effects on human life, and scientists obsessed with dangerous experiments. Although both government and private groups discouraged criticism of U.S. policies and expressions of fear about national security during the Cold War, the producers of science fiction films were generally left alone by government regulators and the private groups that tried to shape public opinion.

In 1980 NBC, collaborating with the BBC, created a three-episode mini-series, The Martian Chronicles, starring Rock Hudson, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story collection of the same name. Bradbury had originally submitted a folder of diverse short stories, most of them set in America, to his publisher, who suggested he tie the stories together by relocating them to Mars. The Martian Chronicles became a classic and one of the top ten books of the 1950s. However, when Bradbury saw the television mini-series, he said it was “just boring”.

Total Recall (1990), written by Philip K. Dick and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, concerns a man whose memory has vanished and who travels to a comfortably colonised Mars in search of his identity.

Mission to Mars (2000), directed by Brian De Palma—one of the most beautifully made of all the Mars expedition films—involves a rescue mission to bring home the lone survivor of a failed expedition. They discover remnants of an ancient civilisation, indicating that Earth itself had been originally seeded millions of years ago by Martians who had been striving to escape their own doomed planet. (This scenario is the reverse of Elon Musk’s vision: humans settling, or “seeding”, Mars to insure against possible extinction on Earth.)

In The Martian (2015) starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, based on a fine novel by Andy Weir, the story centres on an Earth astronaut mistakenly left behind on Mars who has to use his wits to survive. It was a box-office smash, winning a Golden Globe for Best Picture and seven Academy Award nominations, and became Scott’s most financially successful film.

With Mars now firmly back in the driver’s seat in Hollywood, in 2016 Ron Howard created a television mini-series, Mars, innovatively intertwining present-day interviews of figures currently working on the Mars mission, counterpointed against a fictional account of a successful Mars landing and small pioneering settlement in the year 2033. This technique allows the portrayal of current NASA technology and space programs, through actual documentary footage, as a “look back” at how things were that led to successful colonisation.

In Howard’s Mars series the mission reaches the planet and the crew survives an off-course landing, struggling on foot seventy-five kilometres with their injured captain to their base station. The original plan envisioned them landing right next to it and living on the ship while developing the resources of the camp, but now they have to figure out how to survive without the safety of the ship. The viability of future missions also requires them to find a water source. By 2037, other ships and astronauts begin arriving but after an unexpected month-long dust storm, and the mental breakdown of the key botanist, the plan is looking unviable. In the final episode, just as the mission is to be abandoned, microscopic Martian life is discovered, justifying all the sacrifice and risk. As a counterpoint to this future scenario we see, braided in with the fiction, actual 2016 documentary footage of astronaut Scott Kelly spending months training in extended solitude on the International Space Station and we also hear about the work of Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, to create a re-usable rocket.

The most visible and charismatic face of the dream to travel to Mars is South African CEO and lead designer of SpaceX, Elon Musk. Musk (born in 1971) has a net worth of $22 billion. He is the co-founder, CEO and product architect of Tesla. An online bank he started,, later became PayPal, which was bought by eBay for $1.5 billion. He founded SpaceX with $US100 million of his fortune. SpaceX is the largest private producer of rocket engines in the world and the first commercial company to launch a vehicle to the International Space Station. NASA awarded it a contract in 2006 to resupply the station. Musk labels himself half-Democrat (socially liberal) and half-Republican (fiscally conservative) and believes all transportation on Mars (due to lack of oxygen) will be via electric cars, trains and aircraft. (That’s pretty handy when you own Tesla!) He is the prime advocate of the re-usable rocket, believing it will reduce the cost of interplanetary travel by “a factor of ten”, and points out that “if you had to buy a new plane every time you flew somewhere, it would be incredibly expensive”. (Musk has said, “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”)

Howard’s Mars series is extremely detailed about the difficulties the Martian expedition will present, but is remarkably uncritical about how these difficulties will be solved. For instance, besides the six- to seven-month one-way travel time to Mars, temperature and atmosphere are incompatible with human life without protective shelter. Highs of 20°C at noon are countered by extreme lows of –153°C at the poles, with a common value calculated at –63°C. Talcum-powder-fine dust storms form clouds 100 kilometres above the surface that cover the planet, blocking the sun, for a month at a time.

Two proposed solutions, other than living in sanitised shelters permanently, are: terraforming the Martian surface, to make it human-friendly; and genetic engineering to enable settlers to survive the climate. Neither technology currently exists.

The film Red Planet (2000) explores the former premise. Preparatory missions have been seeding Mars with oxygen-producing algae as the preliminary step in terraforming the surface. When the oxygen-level inexplicably goes down, a crew is sent from Earth to investigate.

The Titan (2018), although not set on Mars, explores the altered-genetics scenario. In the over-populated and conflicted Earth of 2048, scientists have chosen Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, for colonisation. Astronauts have their DNA infused with animal DNA, with the goal of creating a new species, Homo titaniens, that can survive the deadly atmosphere. In this enhanced state, with wing-flaps developed under their arms, the genetically-altered astronauts can fly.

It might be that Elon Musk is still living in a dream that has lost its shelf life. David Cox wrote in the Guardian:

The Mariner and Viking programmes revealed what Mars was actually like. Its “canals” had already been exposed as an optical illusion. Oxygen was absent and atmospheric pressure was too low to allow water to liquefy. There was no global magnetic field to provide protection from the cosmic and solar radiation that would obliterate any form of life. Inevitably, these disappointing discoveries changed the place of Mars on humanity’s mental map. Films began to reflect this. Martians themselves began to be relegated to comic status in films such as Martians Go Home (1989), Mars Attacks! (1996) and Mars Needs Moms (2011).

Full circle back to the early 1950s and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.

Since late last century, hundreds of new planets have been discovered in the universe—700 at last count—including Kepler 22-b, which most likely has water and a livable atmosphere. Upside: the temperature there appears to be a comfortable 22°C. Downside: it is 638 light-years away; one light-year measures about 9.5 trillion kilometres.

Buzz Aldrin thinks going to Mars would evolve humankind into a “two-planet species”. One of the avowed goals of a two-planet species is an alternative Earth—a safeguard against extinction—similar to a back-up drive on a computer. But why go 50 million kilometres to an inhospitable planet to store your “drive”?

Mars is vulnerable to the same catastrophes that threaten Earth, not to mention possible problems with the sun, which both planets share. We would actually need a completely new solar system for real security, if that is even possible—or necessary.

Regarding the theory of terraforming Mars: wouldn’t it be more practical and cheaper to terraform the Moon? The Moon is just as inhospitable but right around the corner. And as a first practical step to doing this to another planet, how about renovating the hundreds of deserts and the Australian outback to support Earth’s growing population? First steps first. Why waste billions on Mars when settlers will have to live out their lives in greenhouses?

We might also use that money to create self-sustaining mega-space stations that could support hundreds of thousands of people, as in the film Elysium (2013), enabling frequent, practical and inexpensive trips back and forth.

The story of Elysium takes place in 2145 when the Earth is polluted and overcrowded. A giant revolving space platform above the Earth, called Elysium, is the upper-class neighbourhood of the wealthy and powerful. The poor and sick have to remain on Earth, but technology and state-of-the-art hospital equipment exist on Elysium that can heal any disease and even regenerate failed body parts. Disenfranchised residents stuck on Earth want access to this technology but it is forbidden to them. The drama consists in the struggle of a group of Earth-dwellers attempting to travel to Elysium to access the medical technology to heal their families.

In 2017, US Congress passed the NASA Authorization Act, which allocated to NASA 20 billion dollars and a mandate to get humans beings “near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s”. NASA outlined how this will be done, with the Moon as a stop-over point:

The human exploration of Mars crosses three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth: Earth Reliant [now until the mid-2020s], the Proving Ground [now to 2030], and Earth Independent [now to 2030s and beyond].

NASA already has rovers exploring the surface of Mars, searching for water and oxygen, and is planning to send another in 2020. Elon Musk wants to establish a permanent settlement there, of 80,000 people, by 2040.

In Buzz Aldrin’s book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, he says astronauts should view the trip like the early pilgrims did: as settlers planning to live out the rest of their lives there—without thinking of ever returning to Earth.

The First is a human drama series, not science fiction. Just as Ray Bradbury relocated stories for The Martian Chronicles on the Red Planet, so could The First be situated in any time and place and the story would essentially be the same: a father in a risky line of work, in harm’s way, requiring extended periods away from his family; sustained uncertainty and depression in the wife who has to remain home; the unthinkable phone call that could come day or night, announcing tragedy; and alienated children, who resort to rebellion and substance abuse.

Some critics have not been kind. Lucy Mangan of the Guardian put her boot in:

We are some time in the near future. The clothes and cars look the same, but everything is voice-activated by software that actually works … Tom goes home and takes a razor to his beard of self-pity with the aid of some Deepening Resolution shaving foam and sets his jaw in preparation for whatever the rest of the series has in store for him; an agglomeration of slickly executed, gloriously uninvolving scenes he will continue to phone in …

Ed Cumming countered in the Independent:

With his usual skill of hinting at great wells of rage and empathy, Penn lifts Hegarty [sic] above these clichés. He is in fighting shape, perhaps after months of using punch-bags with the faces of literary critics stuck on, and looks like he is on the hunt for a scrap.

As of this writing, The First has neither been cancelled nor renewed for a second season. I guess the jury is still out as to whether such non-sci-fi sci-fi has enough audience appeal to sustain another eight episodes. But as Richard Roeper wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “unlike most dystopian-future films and TV shows, there’s often an optimistic, we-can-do-anything, America-is-great tone to the storytelling”.

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