Still in living memory is the supposed ultimate achievement of humanity. We looked at the moon for thousands of years but on July 20th 1969 we touched down on that glowing white orb in the sky and people from this blue and green one strode (well, bounced) across it. The mission from launch to safe return of the astronauts via splashdown in the Pacific Ocean to terra firma totalled barely over a week. Should modern space travel get beyond flinging cars into space and reach instead for Mars, how would such a journey impact on a crew impossibly far from friends and loved ones?
Away, starring Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) ponders that very question. Emma Green (Swank) commands a small crew on the first manned mission to Mars, a 3-year round trip. Conceived as a multi-national expedition, the Mars Joint Initiative consists of: Commander Green (American); Second in Command and pilot, Ram Arya (Indian); botanist and first-time astronaut, Kwesi (British); chemist Lu Wang (Chinese), selected as the first human to set foot on Mars; and engineer Misha (Russian), the most experienced astronaut there is.
This blend of personalities make for around 50% of the show or, as it would be more crass to say, the ‘good’ part. Throughout Away’s 10 episode run the Atlas crew hit obstacle after obstacle. Some are technical (a vital solar panel not unfurling therefore risking their power supply, and a supply rocket disappearing from contact to name a few) whilst others are personal.
Bullish and frank Misha (Mark Ivanir) throws his experience around yet hides a potentially disastrous failing, and Lu’s (Vivian Wu) cold exterior covers up the emotional turmoil inside. Getting to know the crew is a lot of the fun of Away and their clashes with authority whilst dealing with a series of increasingly life threatening crisis’s makes for good dramatic television.
Less can be said for the Earth-based plot lines. Away bills itself as more concerned with the emotional trauma of long-distance space travel and on those left behind. Most prominently featured is Emma’s husband Matt (also a NASA engineer with leading expertise in the Atlas) and their teenage daughter Alexis (“Lex”) who, in the absence of Emma, has to deal with a sudden medical issue rendering her father wheelchair bound. In a different show, this could indeed make for compelling television as a combination of guilt, fear, and defiance bubbles up inside Lex (played with great vulnerability by Talitha Bateman). But when there is a trip to Mars as your alternative plotline it is hard to see the family’s domestic issues as anything other than a pace killer.
Which would imply that Away has much pace. Even the space sections are languid to the point of trying one’s patience. The dullness of space travel is certainly a more realistic depiction, but such a large volume of the show is spent with our crew video calling home or, as they stretch further away, sending emails, voice memos and text messages. Seriously, how good is the internet some 63 million kilometres from Earth?! Swank’s performance consists largely of reading or sending emails and crying about being far away from her family. Her emotional state makes for good conflict on board the Atlas as her commitment is questioned but I found it hard to sympathetically connect, instead finding her lack of mental fortitude rather annoying.
Much is made of a lack of trust or respect for Emma after her instinctive actions in the early days of the mission inadvertently cause a dreaded fireball to float at zero G around the ship: something apparently based on a real event. This is rather tiresome in the early stages as bitchiness and snide comments rule the day for the first half of the show. Away seems to have trouble deciding whether to really commit to the psychological elements of space travel or revel in the tried and tested high tension of life threatening faults, and when you put the two side by side then interpersonal bickering is inevitably a let-down in comparison.
If you can get past the lethargic first episode and stick with it until the back end of the series then Away has some rewards for you. The tension goes up a notch for our space travellers as they band together in adversity, whilst the dynamic between wheelchair-bound Matt (Josh Charles) trying to play both parents to a spinning out Lex makes for heart warming stuff. The fact he’s also the guy trying to design fixes for the Atlas is a poor use of the character as it leaves the father/daughter relationship competing with a more exciting ‘here’s a blueprint to save the day’ angle.
Nonetheless, as that red planet looms large you will be egging on the cast of Away. Misha’s sardonic nature easily gives him the best one liners and Ato Essandoh’s earnest temperament as Kwesi is eminently huggable. What you need to do is mentally ditch the melodrama. Ditch the tacked on plotlines where both Matt and Emma are faced with people falling in love with them (seriously, ditch that and ditch it hard). Then ditch the rather wet boyfriend plotline for Lex (even if his pic of Mars suggests he has the best zoom found on any smart phone ever). What is left after all the ditching is a 50% compelling show, which truth be told is probably a higher ratio than real life most of the time…
Words by Mike Record