September 7, 2020
Stars Hilary Swank, Josh Charles, Vivian Wu, Mark Ivanir, Ato Essandoh, Ray Panthaki, Talitha Bateman.
The earnest but ultimately underwhelming “Away” takes viewers on a journey to Mars from the perspectives of both the crew on board the spacecraft and the families they left behind on Earth.
The show focuses on a ship called the Atlas undertaking the three-year round trip in the not-to-distant future. The five-member crew consists of representatives from five different countries, with Hilary Swank playing their American commander, Emma Green. While they supposedly trained together for two years, the team barely seems to trust each other, as evidenced by an incident en route to a lunar base that motivates the Russian and Chinese members of the crew to call for her to be replaced.
Emma’s having her own second thoughts about leaving her family behind for three years, as the day before Atlas launches from the moon base her husband, Matt (Josh Charles), suffers a stroke related to the genetic disorder that led to his removal from the astronaut corps. Emma wants to return to her 15-year-old daughter, Lex (Talitha Bateman) but Matt wakes up just in time to tell Emma to blast off. So she does.
And that’s just the first episode.
The rest of the 10 episodes are filled with various interpersonal conflicts between the members of the crew and flashbacks to their lives on Earth (complete with bad wigs for when they’re supposed to look “really” young). Usually the crew is fighting over the fact that their ship is falling apart, apparently designed by the worst engineers the various space agencies could assemble.
In its depiction of the fictional mission, the series has traded verisimilitude for melodrama, allowing the crew members’ hang-ups over the lives they left behind on Earth to sow self-doubt and sentimentality in ways rarely seen in actual astronauts. Talk about the wrong stuff.
To further the space soap opera vibe, a significant portion of the show focuses on Emma’s family’s dealing with her being gone, as Lex blows off school to cope with her father’s physical therapy recovering from the stroke that has left him in a wheelchair. Matt, for his part, doesn’t have much time for Lex since he’s working with mission control to try to figure out how stop the poorly designed spacecraft from malfunctioning.
The show’s efforts at depicting a diverse, multi-national crew are understandable and appreciated. And space enthusiasts will enjoy poring over the details of the fictional mission.
It’s just that it will be hard for audiences to watch “Away” without comparing it to The Martian or the Apple TV+ alternate history of the space race series “For All Mankind,” the latter coming out just last year. And “Away” has a hard time measuring up to those. Plus, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, with the scenario for the mission the show came up with, it just suffers a bit from bad timing.
For one thing, what’s being depicted is a fairly typical joint venture between various government space agencies, with nary a mention of commercial launch capabilities despite the recent, and newsmaking, successes of SpaceX in not only putting astronauts into orbit, but testing larger rockets meant for longer-duration missions.
And then there’s the influence that China is depicted as having on the Atlas mission, to the degree that the other countries apparently agreed to allow the Chinese member of the crew to be the first human on Mars. Given China’s role in the current global pandemic, it’s hard to imagine any Chinese involvement in an international joint venture such as this wouldn’t be heavily scrutinized if allowed at all. (The show even depicts a viral outbreak on board the spacecraft, which only exacerbates the issue of the show being contextualized through the lens of current events that the show’s creators could not have anticipated.)
But at least the acting is solid, the performers are likeable, and anyone looking for a diversion for a few hours who doesn’t get too hung up on the depiction of space travel will likely be highly entertained by the emphasis on human drama.