With planet Earth not exactly enjoying a vintage year, Away – in which Hilary Swank’s NASA astronaut blasts off on a three-year mission to Mars – ought to feel like a timely proposition. So it’s a shame that Netflix’s big-budget drama struggles to achieve escape velocity.
Swank plays Emma Green, an ex-Navy pilot tasked with commanding the first human flight to the Red Planet – a business trip that lasts for 36 months and comes with a 50/50 chance of death. But this particular star trek is as much about the ones left behind as the ones who boldly go, and as such the action is divided between space and terra firma. So while Emma struggles to assert her authority over her mutinous crew – shifty foreign types, mostly, who aren’t convinced she’s got the right stuff, even though she is clearly An American Hero – her husband Matt (Josh Charles) and daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman) have their own, more domestic dramas to deal with. (In that sense, the show might more accurately have been called Home and Away, but I guess that was already taken.)
It’s a solid premise, scuttled by two major faults. The first is its failure to conjure either the wonder or the claustrophobic terror of space travel, as vividly captured in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). And the second is the fug of cloying sentimentality that hangs over the whole thing, with Swank flipping between stirring speeches about the potential of humankind and teary-eyed video calls with the folks back home (as if we haven’t seen enough of those this year). It’s an approach that reaches its peak in the last reel of the first episode, when Matt croaks his blessing to Emma – “Do your job, this is who you are” – from the ICU, where he’s recovering from a stroke.
At this point, there are still nine episodes left to go, after which you may find yourself asking: Is this really only a three-year mission? It feels so much longer.
BBC Two / iPlayer
With slightly unfortunate timing, Away launched in the same week the BBC finally got round to showing Battlestar Galactica – widely hailed as one of the greatest TV shows of all time (even by people who can’t stand sci-fi). We’re not talking about the disco-robot 70s Star Wars cash-in, of course, but the gritty 2003 reboot, in which the story of humanity’s last survivors fleeing the destruction of their world is reinvented as a bold and brilliant post-9/11 parable of the ‘war on terror’.
Opera Mums with Bryony Kimmings
BBC Four / iPlayer
In this poignant, uplifting film, Bryony Kimmings – performance artist, activist and single mother – embarked on a mission to make opera less intimidatingly posh by writing a libretto telling the stories of five real-life single mums. “Please let it be worth the cost of all those babysitters,” she fretted, as her muses arrived to watch the show (at the ENO, no less). As it was, seeing their lives and voices represented on stage proved an emotional experience for the women – and for us.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, 10 September 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend