Creator: Andrew Hinderaker
Directors: Edward Zwick, David Boyd, Charlotte Brändström, Bronwen Hughes, Jet Wilkinson, Jeffrey Reiner
Writers: Andrew Hinderaker, Jessica Goldberg, Aditi Brennan Kapil, Chris Jones, Ellen Fairey
Cast: Hilary Swank, Vivian Wu, Josh Charles, Mark Ivanir, Ray Panthaki, Ato Essandoh, Talitha Eliana Bateman
Streaming Platform: Netflix
By launching oneself into space, mankind crosses Earth’s physical and metaphysical boundaries — reaching out for the stars that are occupied by our souls and God. And when you are out there, in a cosmic sea known for its incalculable expanse, you are naturally caged, in a metal box held together by nuts and bolts. You, first-hand, see how limited your senses and cognition are. We have set foot on the Moon, and Netflix’s Away wants to top that. It wants to cruise towards Mars and its scorched, rust-coloured horizons. Except that here, it isn’t about interplanetary travel. It is about the journey’s psychological perils.
Hilary Swank plays Emma, the commander of the three-year-long mission to Mars, looking over four other astronaut-colleagues. Her space peers are a mix of different nationalities — Indian, Chinese, Russian, British — to show some form of synergistic governmental partnership. Away, for most of the season, is perched between Earth and Mars. All five astronauts face the currents of isolation at one point or another. Emma has to leave her husband, who just had a stroke, and her teen daughter; Misha (Mark Ivanir) his grandchildren; Lu (Vivian Wu) her only confidante and child; and Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) his mother. Loneliness grows like a noxious weed around everyone, and Away cares more about showing us how that suffocates them instead of cinematographically basking in Earth’s curvatures.
That said, Away is no visual marvel — it is a bungling mess that cannot quench the thirst of a sci-fi enthusiast. We are only privy to their space dome — the cabins in which they rest and the common areas in which they interact. For a space-faring show, their internal spaceship set piece has the appearance of a prototype that mustn’t have fared well in its mock simulation. It looks like a plasticky vessel that probably took a thousand dollars to put together and not millions as it should. The interstellar habitats and landscapes do not carry any awe-inspiring dazzle either. Futurism never pervades the brief glimpses we do get of it — the shots are uninspired and frankly, dull. But the show never sells itself as an extra-terrestrial masterpiece, it doesn’t intend to push the visual spiritualism of science fiction. Instead, it unearths the frail environment of these astronauts.
Each episode deals with a workplace and personal hitch. On the more technical front, they wrestle with ship malfunctions, outer space diseases, and dehydration. On the personal front — work-group conflicts and family drama. A manipulative sentimentality to their plight does begin to trickle in. Emma’s family is always at the cusp of a nervous breakdown, for something as small as her daughter scoring poorly on an exam. And every astronaut is constantly haunted by a tragedy of their past or even present — as we go deeper into the season, they continue to flag more and more. But this soap opera treatment of sci-fi doesn’t make you growl or wear you down. You do end up taking pleasure in their successes and achievements. All of it resembles the old-school, clunky cable drama.
This is not to say, however, that the writing does not drag. It isn’t easy to sit through ten hours of a character-pity fest; it is typical fluff that takes itself too seriously. But once you get acclimated to this maudlin tone, the show does manage to hold some dewy-eyed weight. The narrative cross-hatches the astronauts’ past with present to give them depth instead of solely relying on their cheeky personas. Despite an egregiously shallow attempt at fusing Indian mythology with the cosmos (we see fits of elementary-level Ramayana recited every now and then) to carve a backstory for the Indian astronaut Ram (Ray Panthaki), everyone else has a meaningful and affecting past. This never comes off as merely compensatory.
In an episode about a broken water system, we see the toll that microgravity can take on these cramped astronauts. They are like plants wilting away, desperately in need of revitalisation. The Netflix series explores this larger universe of confinement and solitude throughout the season. Over and above sailing more than a million miles away from Earth, the astronauts also faced the existential vagaries of space. That way, the show is harsh and potent. Had they cranked the sci-fi up by a notch, Away would have been immensely watchable.
Away is streaming on Netflix.