Netflix show trades the thrill of a Mars expedition for soapy backstory
The best thing about Away, the new space-travel show on Netflix, is that it doesn’t try to please the audience you think it will. The worst thing about it is that it doesn’t really know how to please anybody else, even if it does a pretty good job of resolving the conundrum it sets up each episode, like one down-a-clown carnival game after another.
The set-up is simple enough. Emma (Hilary Swank) and her international crew are heading to Mars. Representing are a motley crew of variegated experience: for China, Lu Wang (Vivian Lu); for Russia, Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir); for the U.K., Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh); and for India, Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki). NASA has provided the ship that will take them there, as well as the standard Houston ground support for the mission. Since this is the first human flight to Mars, the stakes are high—emotionally and reputationally, if nothing else. And there is a lot of else. It soon becomes clear that countries have sent certain members of the crew to bear a burden of national pride that doesn’t, on the whole, help much with getting the spaceship from point A to point Z.
Episode by episode, Away manages the task of piloting a spaceship from Earth to Mars. Here there’s the worry of the solar panels that won’t retract when they should, here there’s a water-reclamation system that breaks down just to make sure the crew dehydrate a few weeks out from landing. On the way, there are some people who have to reckon with one lousy situation after the other.
And what people they are. The early episodes waste a lot of time filling in the astronauts’ backstories. This one wasn’t born a boy, to her father’s chagrin. This one had a brother who died. This one wasn’t a terribly good father. It’s all string-music and close-up shots, each flashback to an unfortunate past experience tied as well as can be to the immediate fact that if the crew don’t figure things out in the next six hours, they’re all going to die of thirst.
After a few episodes of this structure’s playing itself out, the tension pretty much goes away. However well the cast might go through their motions, it starts to become rote: Character A deals with some past trauma, which causes conflict with Character B, but in the end, they both set aside their hangups and triumph over whatever it is that’s preventing them from getting on with the job of getting on their way to Mars.
It’s the sort of show that would be better to watch in a week-by-week series. A few days’ binge doesn’t do it justice, but that’s not how Netflix has presented it to its audience. Maybe if there were more than ten episodes in the season, it might feel a little less contrived that the show turns again and again to the romantic travails of Emma’s teenage daughter. Is there a consequence to leaving your family to travel in space? Well, does your kid sleep with her new boyfriend in the bed of his Chevy truck?
And let’s talk a minute about how, in her times of doubt, Emma herself imagines her husband, Matt (Josh Charles), as being there on the spaceship Atlas to give her reassurance that she’s done the right thing. She’s there, in her little room, sending a voice-message back to him on Earth, and all of a sudden here he is, talking her through today’s difficult situation. It really couldn’t be cheesier. And it doesn’t serve any real dramatic purpose. It’s just on its way to a happy ending.
That’s the primary lesson of Away: if you pay attention to the people around you, you’ll find that you’re all not so different. You’ve had your disappointments, you’ve worked hard at your vocation even if you haven’t achieved personal fulfillment, but still you struggle on in the hope of doing good for all humanity. It’s all your standard, anodyne stuff. Here’s the script, get it done. And all of the actors get it done just fine.
Yet that’s not all there is to it. The show contains a political component that it doesn’t play up at the start, but that makes for a surprising conclusion. It’s supposed to be Lu, who we’ve seen loves another woman her PRC handlers shunt out of the picture, who’ll first set foot on Mars. The cameras will show that it was someone from China who made the first footprint in that red earth. And Lu’s decision, at the end, surprises in how thoroughly it sets aside such crass and merely political considerations in favor of personal loyalties. Whatever Netflix had hoped to gain from airing Away, it doesn’t seem to have been the favor of the Communist Party of China. And whatever the show’s failings, its determination to tell a story well despite the consequences makes it a show worth watching.