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What Makes Up a Good Space Show?

On Friday, Netflix is releasing ‘Away,’ a Hilary Swank–starring series about a mission to Mars. But just as there are principles that govern real-life space travel, there are rules that TV shows about the concept ought to follow.

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

On Friday, Netflix is launching its latest venture into the great frontier of astronaut fiction. Away, a 10-part series starring Hilary Swank and Josh Charles, chronicles a multinational mission that aims to land the first human on Mars. If that sounds familiar, it should; we’re in a bit of a renaissance—a space race, even—for near-future spacefaring fiction.

Away is the third TV drama in the past four years to tackle a journey to the red planet, after National Geographic’s creatively titled Mars and Hulu’s The First, both of which followed on the success of the 2015 adaptation of The Martian. In late July, Apple TV+ released the teaser for Season 2 of its alternate-history NASA drama For All Mankind, and mere weeks from now, Disney+ will debut The Right Stuff, a limited series adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about Project Mercury. Netflix announced Tuesday that it has tapped the Game of Thrones team of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to adapt Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem series, while Phil Lord and Chris Miller are adapting lunar heist thriller Artemis—the second novel by The Martian author Andy Weir—for the screen. Factor in recent past blockbusters like Interstellar, Gravity, First Man, Hidden Figures, and Ad Astra, and it seems that if space exploration were as popular in Congress as it is in TV and movie production circles, we may have actually landed on Mars by now.

The films and shows mentioned above belong to a specific subgenre of science fiction, depicting either historical events or near-future space travel informed by historical and contemporary experience. There are no aliens, no laser guns, and if interplanetary outposts and faster-than-light travel are depicted, they’re based on modern scientific understanding. This subgenre is distinct from The Expanse, Firefly, and Star Trek and its children: TV shows in which people live and work in space in the same way we might live and work in, say, Colorado.

But how do you make good astronaut fiction? What goes on the checklist before a show like Away can even get off the ground, and how can such a program stand out from a constellation of others like it? Just as Newton’s three laws of motion govern actual space travel, here are four laws that ought to govern TV shows about space travel.

1. Choose a direction and stick to it.

Anyone who goes to space needs a good reason, and the same is true of anyone who merely pretends to go to space on TV. Just as real-life astronauts risk their lives for national pride, for scientific exploration, or for the betterment of humanity, good astronaut fiction uses the perspective and distance of space to provide a new viewpoint on some aspect of society or human nature.

The options are numerous. For All Mankind speculates on the path that American society would have taken if the Soviets had won the race to the Moon—how far would the United States have gone in order to claim victory in a race it had trailed from the start? The show also depicts a fictional phone conversation between President Ted Kennedy and former president Richard Nixon, which is not among its 20 most bonkers plot twists. The First, meanwhile, examines the relationship between government and private industry when it comes to spaceflight.

Away seems less concerned with spaceflight as an instrument of science and politics than as a vehicle for interpersonal drama; engineering details that would consume huge swaths of The First, let alone The Martian or Apollo 13, tend to get yada-yada’d, and any questions about the tone of the show were answered when “Executive Producer Jason Katims” appeared in the credits of the first episode. This is first and foremost a show about family.

Even speaking as someone who has a near-obsessive interest in the minutiae of spaceflight and who rolls his eyes any time he hears the second verse of “Rocket Man,” this is not a criticism, because Away pursues its viewpoint so earnestly. Away’s interpersonal drama and emotional interiority aren’t as fun as For All Mankind’s alternate history Cold War and Fake Nixon, but they’re pursued with the same frankness and sincerity. Just like in space travel, the key is to stay on course.

2. Find the right crew, or literally hire Mark Ivanir.

Here’s a secret: Real-life astronauts, as a class of people, are kind of boring. They’ve trained their entire lives to be military pilots or scientists, and by the time they get to space, they’ve become some of the most skilled, clear-headed, pragmatic, and disciplined people in the universe. Which is appropriate: In an environment as unforgiving as space, boring is good. Anything else can lead to a rapid and/or excruciating death. That’s why it took almost 50 years to get a Neil Armstrong biopic, and once it arrived, it portrayed Armstrong as even more laconic than he was competent.

That kind of human crew cut can hold an audience’s attention for two hours in Apollo 13 or The Martian, particularly if they’re played by a charismatic actor. But the peaks and valleys of a 10-episode TV season demand something more complex. There’s room for one person whose entire personality is a stiff upper lip—usually the mission commander—but they must be surrounded by more interesting foils. More than that, the crew must mesh well together.

In real life, NASA is nowhere close to sending people to Mars, but it’s done decades of research into a critical component of the mission: How to get people to live together in a box for years on end without killing each other. This issue is as important to long-term space travel as providing power and clean water, and it’s much easier to express on television.

Away draws from familiar sources for its supporting cast. There’s a stoic scientist, a charming ladies’ man, a slightly nervous rookie, and a colorful European. Mark Ivanir (The New Pope, Homeland) steals the show as the latter, a Russian cosmonaut named Misha Popov. Ivanir is himself a veteran of fictional spaceflight after a guest appearance as—you guessed it—a colorful Russian cosmonaut in For All Mankind. When in doubt, hire Mark Ivanir.

As one might expect from a show built around an Oscar-winning actress, Away is a Hilary Swank vehicle above all else. But still, every other member of the crew is fully realized, with their own distinct roles in the story and personal experiences and anxieties that are expressed and investigated throughout the mission.

3. Nail the gadgets.

An astronaut is only as good as their equipment, and interplanetary spacecraft are, first and foremost, machines. Some of the coolest machines humanity has ever conceived, in fact, and the audience wants to see them work. That means a good astronaut show needs to feature triumphant shots of a rocket riding a plume of smoke and fire into the heavens while folks on the ground look on in awe. Some version of this sequence provided one of the emotional climaxes of Apollo 13, ended not only the first episode of Away but the original 1983 adaptation of The Right Stuff, and was subverted to great effect in the premiere of The First.

We need to see bells and whistles. Literally, in some cases, as the detached serenity of space must be broken by the visceral click of a switch or the piercing whine of an alarm. After all, what else does an astronaut have to do on a three-year Mars mission other than flip switches and read walls of gauges?

We also have to know how the spaceship works. Real-world spacecraft, with their modular designs and exposed outer workings, leave nothing to the imagination. Quite unlike a flying saucer or a Klingon bird-of-prey, we can see which parts of the ship produce the power, generate artificial gravity, and disengage to land.

And to see how the spaceship works, we need to see it not work. Every great astronaut drama features some mishap that places the crew at risk of running out of power, water, fuel, or some other precious and finite resource, and only through intimate knowledge of their spacecraft can they tear the ship apart to improvise a solution.

4. Keep the drama on the ground.

Of course, “they” doesn’t just mean the astronauts. A mission to space succeeds or fails not when the crew returns to Earth, but before they even leave. If something goes wrong in space, there usually aren’t many resources available to make repairs, and even less time and room for improvisation in which to do so.

Therefore, all the pivotal decisions are made before the mission. Battles over funding or public support; conflicts within the crew or over crew composition; philosophical differences over design, manufacturing, and planning of the ship; crew members getting cold feet or discussing the possibility of their death with their families—ideally all of these are settled matters by the time the astronauts suit up for launch. A TV show that’s interested in the process of spaceflight will spend much more time on Earth than in orbit.

Astronauts might be literally isolated when they’re in space, but in reality they’re supported by tens of thousands of ground-based engineers. In the event of an emergency, it’s these engineers who solve problems, leaving those on board to implement solutions. Even in Apollo 13, which put peak Tom Hanks at the center of one of the most famous spacefaring emergencies in human history, the hero was not Hanks’s Jim Lovell but Ed Harris’s Gene Kranz, the unflappable flight director who supervised the rescue.

For All Mankind, The First, The Martian, and Apollo 13’s spiritual sequel From the Earth to the Moon all spent tons of time in Mission Control, punctuating pivotal sequences in space with cuts to (usually) sweaty men in short-sleeved dress shirts reading telemetry and giving the flight director a “Go” or “No go” in a pivotal moment. By centering Mission Control in the story and making flight controllers into important characters, an astronaut show not only expands its world, it creates and then leans on an internal scientific logic that allows the audience to play along, almost like a whodunit.

This is not an ironclad rule; For All Mankind devotes nearly as much time to administrators and engineers—not just Gene Kranz types but actually Gene Kranz—and still ends up having astronauts improvise dangerous and implausible solutions during emergencies. (One of the several plot elements that cause Fake Nixon to blend into the background involves an astronaut chucking a fuel tank like a football while in lunar orbit.) But a show that remembers there’s more to the mission than the crew stays more grounded in reality, and therefore puts less strain on the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Fictional spaceflight differs from the genuine article in one important respect: There’s room to take risks and even make mistakes without dooming the entire enterprise to failure. But certain principles must nevertheless be followed. The TV industry has been sending fictional people to space almost as long as NASA has been sending real ones; we should know by now what works and what doesn’t.