I can imagine that The First has frustrated many- it is a decidedly slowburn with (minor spoiler) the astronauts only having left Earth orbit at the end of the final episode of this first season. There is an obvious danger to this, in that as far as I’m aware, a second season has not yet been confirmed, So considering this series is all about the first person/s to walk on the red planet, it’s a bit of a risk taking the big-picture/ long-haul approach.
Personally I do find it exciting and refreshing. There have been several films and tv series already about going to Mars (indeed, the French Missions a few months ago which proved deplorable) and most get tied up in the technical aspects, such as the hardware and spectacle, opposed to the human elements and more emotional aspects of the achievement. Clearly getting a human to Mars is one of the greatest stories ever told, and if we are lucky we may see the real thing in our lifetime. But in a world where no man has set foot on the moon since 1972, nothing is guaranteed, so our fascination with the odyssey to Mars must remain one of fiction for now.
The First is not perfect but on the whole it is an interesting and entertaining story that it tells. The usual approach to this sort of series would have been to have gotten them into orbit and on their way, and used flashbacks to show their backstory etc but wisely The First goes the other way, establishing all that background and drama first prior to the grand adventure. Certainly once the crew launch the spectacle and realism of the orbital procedures and the hardware/zero gravity are excellent and lives up to expectations. Perhaps that was just too late for some unaccustomed to such a slow-burn pace and I assume audience figures may have dropped reflecting those frustrations- I can only hope enough viewers stayed with it to get the second series because I expect the pay off will be worth it.
The series begins with the launch of the first (and ill-fated) expedition to Mars and its aftermath, in which politicians threaten to pull the plug and the part private/part NASA enterprise led by genius and entrepreneur Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) tries to salvage something from the disaster and get a second mission greenlit and launched. In this there is both a race against time (for the next available launch window) and a struggle to ensure there is a functioning base station for anybody arriving at Mars (hardware is waiting there but faults threaten any survival or possibility of safe return). While all this is going on, we see the personal crisis of Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), selected to command the hastily-assembled second mission, a widower whose teenage daughter is unable to cope with the loss of her mother. Hagerty’s personal lifetime goal to go to Mars is threatened by his responsibilities towards his self-destructive daughter and how his daughter in turn feels guilt and resentment towards her father. I appreciate it sounds a bit like a soap opera, but The First tells the story in imaginative ways, at times with the feel of a Terrence Malick picture.
The First also explores the lives of the remainder of the prospective crew and the impact of the mission on their families and freinds, as well as the rather obsessive drive of the CEO of Vista, the commercial arm of the mission that is partnership with NASA. Set in 2033 we see glimpses of technology we don’t have yet but it is tactfully just part of the background, the show wary of deflecting from the human dramas.
On the whole I think it is a very good series, cleverly told with each episode having its own feel, and telling what might have been an over-familiar and even mundane story (its soap-opera aspects) in genuinely imaginative ways in how it marries visuals and music. The cast are very, very good and the whole thing looks really impressive. I really hope we get a second and even third season to properly tell the story and ensure its epic and yet intimate feel gets a satisfying conclusion.