The First Is Last As A Space Drama

The First, which started streaming on Hulu, could have been a great space drama about humanity facing the dangers of space travel head on. In this case, the story of the first manned mission of Mars. Unfortunately, The First never gets off the ground (pun intended) and should have been aborted before a single frame of film was shot.

Sean Penn stars as Captain Tom Hagerty, a veteran astronaut who was bumped from the first manned mission to the red planet, only to be later drafted to be its commander. The entire eight-episode series is about the preparation for the mission itself and it is a slow, tepid journey to get to the launch. Unlike other space dramas like the classic From the Earth to the Moon, very little time is spent on how humanity prepares for the next, great space adventure. Some lip service is paid on who gets chosen to be on the mission, assorted malfunctions and the political machinations undertaken by Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the CEO of the private enterprise fronting the mission. Instead, The First bogs itself down with boring family drama.

What takes front and center in this series is the tedious relationship between Hagerty and his young adult daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who is a recovering drug addict. Hagerty’s attention is wasted on keeping tabs on his daughter, which threatens his capability of leading the mission. This is baffling. If this astronaut has so much emotional baggage why did Ingram pick him to lead a high-profile mission? We never get a sense that Hagerty is uniquely qualified. Sure, he was the first man to return to the moon since the ’70s, but it appears that Hagerty is himself a problem. Half the time, Penn looks like he just woke up from an all-night binge and after the early episodes, it is clear his heart and mind is not on the mission.

Not only is The First dull, but it is pretentious with lofty dialogue that no human being would actually say. There are numerous film-school-reject shots that don’t make sense such as scenes of cicadas emerging from the ground mixed in between overlong shots of characters looking off in the distance and ugly art images.

This is truly a shame because the pilot episode was interesting and followed the mode of what one would expect from a space drama. The production values are suitably realistic for a show taking place in the 2030s and the main theme score is truly inspiring. Sadly, it all goes downhill from there, especially when more and more time is wasted on Denise and her angst that belongs on another show.

If The First makes it to second season, it would be for the best if it focused on the drama of the mission itself and jettison all the junk family drama. Only then will it soar off the ground and captivate its viewers. Until then, watch the fictional Mars-missions series shown on Discovery and National Geographic. They’re more informative and entertaining.

 

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NASA’s Next Chapter Awaits

The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off today on its final shuttle mission closing a 30-year chapter in NASA’s manned space program. Looking around the news casts obsessed with Casey Anthony, the dismal jobs report, and other headlines it was hard to find substantial mention of Atlantis’ mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

This just underscores the sad state of America’s space program and it seems as if the shuttle fleet is being retired with a whimper. It’s almost as if NASA and the government want to downplay the fact that there are no concrete future plans.

After President Obama all but scuttled NASA’s manned space program, the agency has been left grasping at straws to remain relevant. Meanwhile Russia, China and other nations are pushing on with their space efforts. So why not us? Blame it on cost-cutting politicians, an apathetic public and NASA’s bureaucracy; there are plenty of reasons. But it could be traced to a lack of long-term planning.

Back in the 1960s, President Kennedy proclaimed his famous goal of landing a man on the moon before the decade ended. Then the U.S. was in a very public space race with a very competitive Soviet Union. One added impetus was that the Russians were winning. It fired the public’s imagination and will for America to forge ahead despite setbacks like the Apollo 1 tragedy. Once Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, everyone celebrated and collectively went on the next thing. NASA’s budget was slashed and bit by bit the agency’s ambition withered; goals like sending astronauts to Mars by the 1980s went by the wayside. The most recent setback was with Obama effectively killing the agency’s plans to return to the moon in a few years.

Now with the shuttle fleet retired, current plans are to develop a new successor to the mammoth Saturn rockets, building spacecraft that can leave Earth’s lower orbit and vague plans to reach an asteroid by 2025 and orbit (not land on) Mars in the 2030s. Frankly that is too far away in time to capture the public’s imagination. For all the hand wringing by NASA, the fact is that the technology to send people to Mars and colonize our moon exists today, actually it has existed for years. What kept that from happening was the lack of will from everyone. Politicians didn’t want to invest their capital on projects that paid off way into the future, NASA seemed to be more interested in conducting tests in space that the average Joe didn’t care about, and the public complained about the costs and necessity of the space program. In truth, the budget for the space program is very small compared to other expenses. To do away with it completely won’t cure our financial woes.

NASA needs clear goals that regains the public’s interest, and more importantly the drive to push the envelope. It may take another nation pulling off a genuine feat to light America’s fire again. Perhaps commercial space craft development will do it (the company SpaceX has plans for a test run to the ISS this year). Or maybe the sight of American astronauts piggybacking on Russian space capsules might do something to boost our motivation. For now though, the next chapter in the U.S. manned space program is still on the launch pad.

J.L. Soto