While Intelligently Artificial is a blog mostly dedicated to media and gaming issues, I’ve also found myself talking about space exploration to a degree I had not expected. Part of the reason is because we are living in an exciting time, where just maybe some of the things that, as a child, I anticipated would already have happened by now, might actually happen (moon bases, missions to Mars, etc.).
That explains why I was drawn to the Netflix series Away as my latest attempt to divert myself from the election chaos. The series follows the crew of Earth’s first attempt to send people to Mars and bring them home, and interweaves the missions challenges with their individual backstories, and some drama back on earth, centering mostly on the family of the mission’s Commander, Emma Green (played by Hilary Swank). Apparently the series was reasonably popular and at least had respectable streaming stats. However, a mere 6 weeks after it dropped, Netflix announced there would be no second season.
And I can see why.
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The entire series was slow as molasses in February but for me at least that isn’t automatically a bad thing. The series seemed like it wanted to invest in its characters, rather than lurch from one action sequence to another.
The first major problem afflicting the show was that while the producers expended considerable effort to make the science plausible in theory, it was often deeply flawed in its execution.
Atlas, the ship bound for Mars, embodied many of the core ideas I’ve seen being tossed back and forth about how to design a Mars mission. It had a plausible mechanism for generating gravity, for example, in at least part of the ship. We know that zero G takes an enormous physical toll on the body, and Mars-bound astronauts would be away for many times longer than the longest recorded stay in space to date. The deployment mechanisms for the solar arrays, the storage mechanisms for the plants aboard, communication delays, all seemed plausible.
But every so often the show would go off the rails completely in ways that made it seem as if that portion had been scripted while the show’s team of scientific advisers was on holiday in the Bahamas.
One of the major challenges associated with any long-term stay in space is radiation. We’re–for the moment–mercifully shielded from harmful radiation by the atmosphere we seem hellbent on destroying, but astronauts traveling to Mars and back are going to be exposed to the stuff for years. One possible solution is something that the show implemented, which was to design a ship where the hull is encased in thin water bladders that provide a measure of protection.
The major drama in the show’s first and only season is provided by the gradual deterioration of the ships primary and secondary water recycling and filtration systems. This finally reaches the point where the crew and mission control are faced with trying to figure out how to tap the water inside the hull to survive long enough to get to Mars where a supply ship is waiting. The first attempt involves accessing the water from the inside. The crew needs to drill through the inner hull, into the bladder. The problem is that there is only about half an inch between the bladder and the outer hull.
Atlas is fitted with a highly sophisticated medical bay. Now, one would think that such a facility would include items like surgical drills, which would be necessary to deal with some of the potential medical emergencies that could arise, some of which might involve having to drill into bone, or–more likely–into people’s skulls to relieve pressure. Such drills are precision instruments that often incorporate guides to prevent a surgeon from, say, drilling right through your brain and out the other side. This is exactly the kind of instrument you would need when drilling into, say, the side of a thin spaceship where the risk of catastrophic decompression is high.
Naturally, the characters do not employ such an instrument. In fact, they employ a hefty power drill that looks like it was purchased from a Home Depot bargain bin. One of the characters, Ram, attacks his task with all the finesse of someone installing a garden trellis. With entirely predictable results.
Away is typical of shows that invest heavily in an idea of scientific realism. If you do that, it makes the lapses appear even more egregious and frequently contrived.
The Wrong Stuff
The most maddening thing about Away, however, was the same thing that drove me nuts about Another Life, another drama of a hand-picked, highly trained crew tackling a long voyage. In each case, the producers seem to have an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the modern physical science behind space exploration, yet they seem to know jack shit about the human science involved in selecting and training people to be astronauts.
In Another Life, the crew is overwhelmingly made up of the whiniest, most annoying bunch of entitled Millennials you will ever see on screen. And I’m not using that term simply to bash a particular demographic but as an accurate descriptor. Many of the crew are unrealistically young given the training necessary to become an astronaut. More tellingly, however, many of them have major personality defects–they are argumentative, combative, sulky and withdrawn, prone to panic–that would ensure they were kicked out of any astronaut training program after a moderately competent psych eval. Hell, some of them wouldn’t even pass muster for working at Denny’s.
The saving grace of Another Life is that quite a few of these whiny little shits are killed off during the voyage, which was a major source of pleasure for me.
The same radical lack of understanding concerning the training necessary to become an astronaut is evident in the supposedly much more realistic Away. The entire series isn’t even 20 minutes old before the crew is sniping at one another, arguing, challenging their commander’s leadership, etc. The show is expecting us to believe that a character as abrasive as the cosmonaut Misha, or as nakedly hostile as Wang Lu, would ever have been selected for a mission. It expects us to believe that the crew has trained together for two years and that these major personality conflicts have never, ever surfaced prior to launch day.
On one level, I get it. Major personality defects breed the potential for drama. But it is the cheap and easy way to generate drama, one that doesn’t force you to have to think about deeper and more subtle forms of conflict. Moreover, it creates a major lack of realism in a show that is otherwise deeply invested in realism. The producers and writers of both Away and Another Life don’t seem to have the faintest idea of how to generate drama out of people being professional and just doing their job. This is one of the reasons why I think that Apollo 13 still stands up as a good movie. No one had to invent some kind of back story for Jack Swigert being wracked with guilt over a puppy he had to put down when he was 8. It wasn’t necessary to have Jim Lovell having a major emotional meltdown as he questioned all his life choices.
Where this is most problematic in Away is the character of Emma Green. Nominally the commander of the mission, Swank’s character has trained for years as an astronaut. We are told she is a space flight veteran. She has trained specifically for this mission. Yet when things start happening to her family back on earth, she is transformed into a sniveling wreck, constantly questioning her decision to go into space, to abandon her family, crying and moaning, and writing tearful monologues to her husband. It wasn’t just the fact that this person would never, ever have been selected to lead such a mission, it was the way in which her character conformed to every single anti-feminist stereotype about women as leaders. I passed through multiple stages watching Swank play this role: excitement, cautious optimism, disbelief, rage. Finally I just felt deeply sorry for her having to play this role.
There is another reason,however, for this stunning lack of awareness of how NASA selects and trains people, and it is connected with a deep wellspring of misguided belief in the US. Part of it is an increasing distrust of expertise of any sort. If you don’t believe in climate science, why would you believe that NASA actually has the ability to screen out psychopaths and whiny shelldwellers?
But the larger problem is that American audiences–for their entertainment and their politics. . .oh, wait, same diff–expect the players to be “people like us.” In politics, this is the infamous “someone you could have a beer with” criteria that too many people still use when picking candidates. Hey, he (usually) or she (more rarely) seems like a “regular person.” The ultimate trajectory of this line of thinking is the famously dumb Dubya, or the current imbecile we have in the White House.
I’m sorry to have to break it to you, America, but astronauts are not people like us. Or to put it another way, 99.99999% of us will never be astronauts. This doesn’t mean they are gods. It simply means that they are selected for characteristics that most of us do not possess. It doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings, but being this kind of professional requires extraordinary levels of compartmentalization. A realistic commander Green would naturally have emotional reactions to her family situation back on earth. But she would also have been selected to put all that out of her mind and do her goddam job in ways that might look quite heartless to the rest of us.
Especially in the US, when we are being ruled by a cast of characters who are so manifestly bad at their jobs, I don’t think we are well-served as a culture by dramas that seem to have no concept that professionalism exists. We need more shows that find the drama in people being professional, and attempting to do the jobs they were trained to do.