I remember exactly how I felt when I read The 100 pilot for the first time. I was more than hooked but anxious too. I wanted to watch it right away and see if they were able to deliver. At the time there was nothing like it on the CW. It was ambitious, riveting and exciting. And they delivered. Quite beautifully. It had problems and the next few episodes rode on a bumpy road. It was too Gossip Girl and not enough Lost, too many love stories, not enough adventures. It took time before it got great again. But it did. I can say I’m almost as impressed by the Mars Project pilot script as I was by The 100‘s and the good news is, now I know The CW can meet our expectations with this kind of ambitious tale, and they know what not to do, so this time I’m not anxious, just excited.
It wouldn’t be that interesting to draw comparisons between The 100 and The Mars Project any further. They share some DNA, that’s for sure. They are both offering the exploration of a new and dangerous territory, whether it’s our very own Earth or the Red planet. And luckily for them, New Mexico can pass for it easily. But that’s it. We’re with a group of adult characters here, which is a relief. No stupid teenagers doing stupid things and taking wrong decisions all the time. Adults can be stupid sometimes too but our heroes are not deliquents but intelligent and highly trained individuals, harshly selected for what they can bring to the colony in various areas of expertise. Some of them might be in love, but that’s not the main focus. It just helps bringing more emotion and higher personal stakes.
For those who are allergic to the Shonda Rhimes’ style of storytelling, sorry to tell you writer Doris Egan chose to follow the How to Get Away With Murder/ Quantico trend, at least to introduce the story. Maybe longer. We’ll see. One part of the pilot is told through flashbacks, showing us how our group of very competitive –and young and beautiful– people met during training, how they fell in love –or in hate– how some of them betrayed the others, mostly for the win. It’s very Quantico, but less fun. Entering the FBI academy is not an easy thing to do but leaving for space, colonizing another planet and proving you are able to resist to an incredible amount of pressure without going back, ever, is one other thing. They are put through numerous tests, both physical and psychological. It’s an efficient way to present the characters. They all have at least one thing in common: since they are ready to leave their whole life behind to go to Mars, it means they are damaged one way or another and we’ll find out more about it later. There is a lot to learn about them I guess.
We alternate with scenes in the present day when the mission has already started, at the very moment when everything suddenly goes wrong. Their vessel is litteraly crashing on Mars. There’s nothing they can do to save the day. Some people die. Others are severely injured, like the beauty queen of the show, Chandra Devi, and they now have to walk towards the camp, many miles away. Weird noises and difficult landscapes are part of their journey. And in the end, as the pitch says: when they finally arrive, the first colonists seem to have disappeared. There’s a message on the wall: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust“. And that’s it. It raises many questions without immediate answers: what happened? Was the crash part of the plan? Was it a sabotage? Is there a mole in the group? You see, there is no murder here –yet– but a lot to chew on anyway. It takes a thriller/horror turn that’s very exciting and probably broader than “simple” sci-fi.
Like The CW couldn’t afford to leave The 100 behind after they shot the pilot, they have to give The Mars Project a shot. It won’t be a rattings juggernaut, probably, but a critics favorite and a hell of a ride, I bet it will be. There’s still work to do so we can care more about the characters, who are just outlined for now, but it’s both a character-driven and a plot-driven show and those are the best.