Away is streaming on Netflix now.

Just because Mum is captaining the world’s first manned mission to Mars doesn’t mean she won’t be available instantly via voice, video calls and email for her bereft family. That seems the main takeaway from this ten-hour combination of soap opera and space exploration, at least up to a point: eventually, the spaceship Atlas gets so far away from Earth that the comms do break down. At that point, we go suddenly from perfectly synched conversations to a static half-hour timelag – a change that at best is playing fast and loose with science, and at worst is pretty much taking the audience for idiots.

Away is basically a family drama with a few sci-fi trappings, in which characters and strained relationships form the centre of attention. The premise is that each of the five members of the ship’s crew has made personal sacrifices to get there, and the perilous eight-month voyage to the Red Planet will test whether that’s been worth it.

For Hilary Swank’s steely commander, the mission has meant leaving her 15-year-old daughter (Talitha Eliana Bateman) at a pivotal stage of adolescence, while her husband (Josh Charles) – who also happens to be director of engineering on the multinational space project – ups the stakes by succumbing to a hereditary medical condition just after the Atlas launches from its lunar base.

The problems of sustaining parental and job responsibilities at the same time is an issue that many viewers will relate to, but that in itself is a problem: as crises on board ship and on terra firma build up, episode by episode, the contest between Swank’s investment in her family and her duty to comrades and the mission feels as if it is being pitched to a middle-American TV viewership, rather than playing as an authentic portrait of hardened, psych-tested Nasa professionals. Putting the first footsteps on Mars would surely be the greatest achievement in the history of humanity, but somehow even that can’t quite overshadow sacred American motherhood.

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Josh Charles as Matt Logan with Hilary Swank as Emma Green

Although each episode holds the interest competently enough, the domestic issues – including the daughter’s ‘secret’ boyfriend with a motorbike, and dad’s ongoing mobility issues caused by his condition – prove mundane enough not to outweigh the spectre of separation and potential loss looming over Swank and family. The storyline sets out to make her suffer bad-parent guilt for fulfilling her lifetime ambitions of space exploration, yet at the same time also exploits the enormous significance of the mission for a touch of flag-waving and admittedly effective intermittent suspense highlights. There’s a calculation going on here which amounts to have cake, eat cake, and wrap some in cling film for later, which ultimately is just too thematically hesitant to resonate to any degree. What’s lacking is material creatively distinctive enough to fire the imagination or linger long in the memory.

For good or ill, recent feature films by Alice Winocour (Proxima, 2019) and Noah Hawley (Lucy in the Sky, 2019) have explored the figure of the female astronaut with much more nuance and melodramatic flamboyance, respectively. In this instance, the casting of Hilary Swank draws on her androgynous, lean physique to convince as a high-achiever in the Nasa training regime; but too often the writing resolves into one of two modes, square-jawed commander or teary vulnerable female, without enough shading in between.

Elsewhere on board, each member of the international crew has a story to tell, though not in any great depth: Mark Ivanir’s grizzled veteran cosmonaut delivers welcome gallows wit alongside his own painful saga of family abandonment, while Vivian Wu’s severe Chinese scientist finds her unexpected illicit romantic attachment to a female colleague hard to balance with the demands of dutiful wife, mother and national heroine.

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Martin Cummins as Jack Willmore, Mark Ivanir as Misha, Vivian Wu as Lu and Ato Essandoh as Kwesi

The subtitled dialogue for backstory flashbacks set in China, Russia, Mumbai (for sad-eyed medic Ray Panthaki) and the Ghanaian diaspora (for Ato Essandoh’s resilient botanist) offers an impression of the story’s international reach and ambition. Again, though, the way the story falls back on emphasising the consoling power of religion when tension levels rise chimes with the abiding values of god-fearing mainstream white-bread America. Indeed, with its relatively mild language and fairly chaste sexuality, this is one Netflix original that may seem comfortingly familiar to those more accustomed to US network TV.

Away is at its best when it allows the hardware to take the spotlight. The opening episode – directed by Ed Zwick and written by series creator Andrew Hinderaker – brings an on-board chemical fire, which makes plain the significant dangers of space travel, while the following instalment offers a gripping spacewalk repair sequence involving stricken solar panels that proves a definite series highlight. One is left feeling that more science and less soap might well have enlivened an otherwise somewhat insipid viewing experience.

Originally published: 21 September 2020