The National Geographic Channel is known for its nature documentaries, not for fictional television programming. But the recently launched TV mini-series “Mars” seems to mark a distinct move away from their regular programming. This series combines “real” documentary with fiction and mocumentary in a formula that is not only different from NatGeo’s regular offering, but also from other series currently available on conventional broadcast and streaming platforms.
The six-episode series stands at the centre of a multi-platform, multimedia Mars-focussed project. National Geographic magazine’s November issue featured a Mars cover story. NatGeo has made an eight-lesson Mars school curriculum guide available for free online.
They have published two books about Mars, one aimed at adults and one at children. Their website offers a slew of online resources including interviews with the cast and crew, exclusive SpaceX rocket test footage and an interactive Mars surface map.
From bird hide to premium TV?
In recent years the number of television series available on conventional broadcast and streaming platforms has grown exponentially. The downside for TV channels of the over-abundance of choice has been that audience attention and viewing loyalty has become diluted. It has become increasingly challenging to capture and retain viewers.
Mainstream Hollywood movies have grown progressively more formulaic. Big studios and distributors hedge their bets on sequels, remakes, tested formats and building so-called “universes” like that of the Marvel superheroes. These formulas are supposed to draw audiences that want to repeat past positive experiences rather than be challenged by new perspectives in independent films.
Enter premium television. The big-budget, high production-value, star-studded television series that exemplify this phenomenon completely changed previously held perceptions that A-list actors, writers and directors simply don’t work in TV. Kevin Spacey, though he has had a stellar feature film career, has now become almost synonymous with Netflix’s “House of Cards”.
Award winning Stephen Soderbergh produced and directed “The Knick” for Cinemax. “Stranger Things” (also Netflix) captured the imaginations of young and nostalgic viewers. Most recently “Westworld” blazed a trail to the top of HBO’s production slate and became an overnight phenomenon with fans around the world.
Capturing primetime audiences
So, is the ambitious, expensive and multi-layered fiction-nonfiction hybrid production “Mars” an attempt by NatGeo to capture some of this premium TV audience? What differentiates the series is the combination of three narrative layers to tell the story of manned missions to Mars. The first layer – real documentary – is set in 2016 and makes use of the expository mode to combine sit-down interviews with archive and contemporary B-roll (cutaways or visual evidence).
The second layer is fictional – a projection of what a future manned mission to the red planet may look like. Set in the 2030s, it starts in 2033 with the launch of the first mission.
The third layer can be characterised as mocumentary, since it uses the conventions of expository documentary (interviews and B-roll). But the interviewees are fictional characters and the B-roll is scripted and fictionalised. The amount of screen time devoted to this layer diminishes as the series progresses, so that there is only one mocumentary interview clip by the final of the six episodes. Arguably this layer forms part of the second, fictional layer, but I believe it’s worth highlighting because it occupies a position between layer one and two – though the content is fictional like that of layer three, the form is borrowed from documentary, mirroring that of layer one.
Layer 1: Documentary
For the 2016 segments the views and experiences of scientists, researchers, thinkers, entrepreneurs and others involved in space travel are woven together. It paints a picture of the history of space travel, where we find ourselves right now, and the manned space travel that is planned for the not too distant future.
Layer 2: Fiction
The fictionalised manned space mission, set in the 2030s, is scripted, making use of actors, sets, visual effects and the other conventions of fictional film and television production. The scenarios are clearly based on thorough and extensive research, however.
In relation to the first layer, these scenarios fulfil the same function that dramatisations of past events, or reenactments, would in conventional documentary. But, since the events are projected rather than historical, it would be more appropriate to call them “pre-enactments” instead.
Layer 3: Mocumentary
The third narrative layer, which includes scripted “interviews” with the characters of the fiction layer, serves to inform one’s understanding of the personal experiences of the Mars mission crew. These “interviews” are used to provide an excuse for exposition and as a short cut to establishing the characters before the audience is launched into the drama of the Mars mission.
Here documentary devices are used in the service of fictional storytelling. This layer is, arguably, the least compelling and most dispensable of the three.
Juxtaposition and the suspension of disbelief
The effects of combining the narrative layers and their respective storytelling modes are multifold. The 2030s pre-enactments visualise the science and technology discussed by interviewees in the 2016 documentary segments, showing their applications and implications.
The 2016 documentary lends credence to the 2030s fictionalised projection. The latter becomes more believable because we know that the technology to achieve what we see in the fictional scenes is already in development in 2016. And in the inter-cutting of the two layers a conversation is created that highlights various themes and dynamics that are explored in both.
There is a strange tension in the series between suspension of disbelief, as one would expect from fiction, and intellectual engagement, as one would expect from a scientific documentary. This stems from the constant interaction between the documentary and fiction segments.
When watching a fiction segment, scientific research comes to life in a way that encourages suspension of disbelief. Drama conventions like interpersonal conflict and internal struggles are combined with action devices. These include visual effects, dynamic camera movements, fast cutting and suspenseful build-ups to climaxes.
The score enhances the dramatic and thrilling moments in the film. The haunting theme song by singer and composer Nick Cave that accompanies the aesthetically pleasing title sequence sets this up from the beginning of each episode as high production value fictional television programming.
Blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction
The idea of combining fiction and nonfiction is, of course, not new. Errol Morris pioneered the use of dramatic reenactments to illustrate interviewee testimony in his groundbreaking 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line”. The feature film “District 9” (2009) uses mock interviews with fictional “experts” to set the scene for its science fiction action.
Recently documentary filmmakers have questioned the divide between fiction and nonfiction through their choices of subject matter and application of form. In the documentary “Elena” (2012), for example, Petra Costa shifts effortlessly between history and memory, fact and fantasy to tell the story of, and process her own feelings about, the disappearance of her sister.
What makes “Mars” worth taking note of is that it combines fiction and nonfiction elements in a way that places them in balance. They inform and enhance each other without the one being foregrounded over the other. And the end result is both entertaining and scientifically grounded.
I’ll hazard my own projection here: we’ll be seeing more high budget, thoughtfully scripted and well acted pre-enactments in conversation with actual documentary in television series and films in the not too distant future. Certainly before we walk on Mars.