08 November 2020

‘Away’ (Netflix, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania
Away on Netflix poster

On the eve of the first crewed mission to Mars, its Commander Emma Green is struggling with confidence and personal issues. After a brief fire in the central module of the Atlas, NASA is investigating her handling of the emergency, with crew members offering conflicting accounts of the events: Kwesi, a novice astronaut and the mission’s botanist, and Ram Arya, the mission’s pilot and second-in-command, are supporting her decisions in the heat of the moment, while the Russian and Chinese astronauts, Misha Popou and Lu Wang, are questioning her reactions under stress and overall leadership capacity. Back on Earth, her husband Matt Logan has just had stroke and is recovering in the hospital instead of guiding the launch from mission control, leaving their teenage daughter in the temporary care of a family friend.

Away starts with a interesting premise: a show about space exploration that combines the hard science aspect with a softer, more personal touch, allowing the audience to get to know the human side of these explorers, their emotional attachments and family sacrifices that come with this risky career. Ironically, Away has managed to portray the second part reasonably well in my opinion but failed miserably on the science aspects.

The series manages to pull off some spectacular and tense scenes in space, especially in the second episode, as well as clever problem-solving in the latter episodes. It was impressive how special effects maintained the illusion of weightlessness for scenes set in the central section of the ship.

On the other hand, the middle portion of the show was terribly slow and so uneventful – at least concerning their primary mission – that I have almost abandoned watching. The behavior of the five astronauts on board, as well as some management decisions from NASA, felt uncharacteristic and unprofessional. In the beginning, Misha and Lu are constantly questioning and opposing the decisions of their commander, almost to the point of mutiny; later Ram becomes infatuated with Emma – I find it hard to believe that astronauts carefully selected and intensively trained would behave so immaturely, especially on this crucial long-duration mission.

The crisis introduced in the second half is even more farfetched: the supply ship sent to Mars experiences a failure during landing and nobody can tell if it made it to the surface safely – you would think NASA would have some sort of contingency plan prepared! As far as I am aware, current plans for Mars missions include multiple supply ships sent to the planet over multiple years precisely to account for possible failures.

I was bothered by how the show treats the communications time lag between Earth and the spacecraft, as if up to some point communications are basically instantaneous and beyond that they are abruptly cut off and have to rely on recorded messages – when in reality the time lag gradually increases with distance and it would become impractical to have face-to-face conversations much earlier. I assume it was done for dramatic effect, to show the alienation between the astronauts and their families back home, but discarding the science ends up alienating the science-fiction audience. There are other inconsistencies as well – the one that stood out to me was how earlier in the season engineers discuss possible failures of the parachute during final descent, but in the landing scene Atlas is shown decelerating with rocket engines alone, similar to Elon Musk’s design.

The personal relations and backstories of the characters were enjoyable and complex. The dynamic back on Earth between Matt and the couple’s daughter looked very convincing, equally how the daughter rebelled and took increasing risks to distract herself from the fear and concern over her mother’s life. In parallel we experience the difficult relationship between Misha and his daughter, a rift caused by him prioritizing his job as astronaut over raising her after his wife’s death. This could be considered foreshadowing for Emma’s future relationship with her daughter.

Public reception seemed mixed to negative, at least among sci-fi fans. The actual audience numbers must have been awful considering Netflix already cancelled the show – although the high production cost may have played a significant role in that decision. As with Altered Carbon’s second season, it looks like Netflix overspent on the cast and visual effects but failed to hire decent writers.

My rating: 3.0

While reading reactions online, I found out about a documentary about founding a Mars colony that I watched on Netflix after finishing Away. Science-wise it was an improvement, with bonus points for casting Jihae in a main role, but the scenario was a bit too close to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars – I would much rather watch a full adaptation of the trilogy (not that it will happen anytime soon) than a watered down series pretending to be an original.

Post a Comment