National Geographic's returning documentary-drama 'Mars' picks up five years after where Season one left us: with the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF) " the hypothetical agency financing the expedition to Mars " having announced that the fruits of their dogged work have paid off: "there is life on Mars".
And so begins the next chapter of this interplanetary docu-drama. The first human settlers on the Red Planet in the small colony of Olympus Town are now building their capabilities to survive on Mars. Mars now hosts two clashing human interests " those of scientists and industrialists.
Season two steps away from the informative, documentary storytelling style of season one to a more narrative, fiction style reminiscent of more serious sci-fi shows.
What it'll take to colonize Mars
While the first season centered largely around the idea of reaching Mars, season two brings you the challenges of living and mining on not one, but two, harsh and desolate worlds. The show is set on both, Mars, and in Earth's very own Arctic.
Season two moves away from the literal comparison to space station astronauts in the first season. The Martian colonists are compared to today's Arctic explorers in what their missions demand of them. The lesser-known lives of Arctic scientists, miners and activists shown in the new season are truly fascinating, and one of the best takeaways from the entire series.
The Martian crew's Deadalus spacecraft standing tall on Martian rock. Image courtesy: National Geographic
Mars is also described as a paradise for entrepreneurs, with beautiful parallels between the Red Planet and the Arctic.
Ironically, for a show called 'Mars', the planet itself doesn't feature as a strong character, with a distinct personality of its own. The focus this season is on the people on either side of the everlasting battle of sustenance versus greed, of science and entrepreneurship.
The narrative dwells largely on the diverse, conflicting ideas of what early years on Mars may look like. It appeals to your curiosity about mankind's plans for colonizing the Red Planet " a "natural next step" to expand our existence into the solar system, as many scientists see it.
The show beautifully outlines some of the key questions in our quest towards becoming an interplanetary species: What are our intentions for Mars? How far are we willing to go? How much are we willing to give up to make that happen?
Martian colonists in a huddle around the front of a Mars rover " they're not alone. Image courtesy: National Geographic
Survival, essentials and mining red rock
The gripping adventure that you were taken on in the first season's narrative takes a more mellow and contemplative form. There's a back-and-forth dialogue with experts about survival and bare essentials " resources, territory and power. And yes, lest we forget, that overly familiar notion that the 'planet will fight back if you push its limits.'
The documentary and expert interviews are engaging, and the visuals predictably stunning. The fictional recreations aren't nearly meaty enough to hold your attention. Especially since we're spoilt for choice when it comes to fictional TV and sci-fi. If you've seen The Expanse (i.e. the best sci fi-political drama ever), you know what I'm talking about.
However, the rivalry between the space agency, IMSF, and the big bad mining corporation, Lukram industries, does not disappoint in drama. To its credit, the show gives both sides a fair shot at being likeable engineers of the collective Martian dream. The show left me believing that there's more than one right way to colonize Mars, and no matter which way we choose to do it, surprises are guaranteed.
A fresh start or another version of life on Earth?
Right up there with the other enjoyable bits of Mars is the intro song, the lyrics of which resonate with an eerie, dark, haunting track that whispers that "heaven is a trick of the light". I couldn't help but wonder: as much as we idealize a future on Mars, the reality could very well be another version of life on Earth. Or will it? Who knows?
The future of energy on Mars is solar and very SpaceX-ey, going by this image of charging stations built by the first human settlers on Mars. Image courtesy: National Geographic.
We're also treated to new perspectives on NASA, and space research by extension. You're shown how the American space agency's research (and the largest part of its resources) are, surprisingly enough, spent on studying Earth " making it more "survivable" for man.
One would imagine that a semi-fictional show about colonizing Mars would tell you many new things. This show doesn't. Sure, there are experts expounding on various aspects of the Mars mission and space exploration, but somehow it leaves you wanting more.
We're shown what a colony on Mars looks like, but not how a Martian society of the future, however small, would function. We're also shown what the overarching struggles are for us on a new and hostile planet, without being told enough about who the characters are, or why one should care about what our plans are for Mars at all.
An underwhelming fictional narrative
The fictional story also doesn't have a consistent thread of science throughout. There are even a couple of loopholes that the show gets away with leaving unaddressed. For instance, the show doesn't explain how return trips from Mars works " just that they are infrequent, yet possible.
Predictably, Nat Geo's Mars is also a very American story. Sure, the astronauts are from different countries, and there's a show of "international" participation at IMSF meetings every now and again. But the show appears like a unidimensional (read 'American') take on humanity's Mars story.
Season two sees capitalists and mining interests, making Mars home to both scientists and miners of the future. Here they are around a drill site on Mars. Image courtesy: National Geographic
In the glorious tradition of many space movies and TV shows, Nat Geo tries to make America great again. But luckily for us, this isn't something that disappoints, just takes away from being a show with a wider appeal.
You're unlikely to find a piece of acting or writing that'll take your breath away this season. But, the moving parts in season two are the ideas " the possibilities. The show isn't simplistic by any stretch of the imagination.
Not a win for hardcore sci-fi fans
On one hand, it does a good job of a difficult task " being fair to both sides of the coin " our instincts to explore and exploit. On the other, it largely lets go of the science and the realism of a delectable, modern science fiction show.
After seeing the epic perfectionism and attention-to-detail in series like The Expanse and the realism, humor and charisma in The Martian, it's unfortunate that the fictional storyline in Mars just can't stand on its own without the compelling narrative of our own Arctic backyard.
Hardcore science and sci-fi buffs, don't go in expecting The Expanse, or Battlestar Galactica. Mars is slower, contemplative, emotional, and far lighter on the science than what we know to be memorable sci-fi.
If you like dabbling in a science-centric series, you'll likely love it. And there's a lot to love " the visuals, the Arctic narrative, thoughts from people who have a lot to gain (and lose) from a mission to colonize Mars. It's very likely that we may see a similar future for us by the late 2030s, which makes this an earnest effort at portraying a likely scenario for it.
And now, as I wait to see what season three brings, there's also one thing I know now that I didn't before watching Season two of Mars: Nat Geo has grown up! The show isn't anything like the Nat Geo I remember ogling at when I was younger " with stories about animals, earthquakes and airplanes.
Has Nat Geo grown up with me? Am I only just taking notice?