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Alberto Ammann, Sammi Rotibi, Jihae and Gunnar Cauthery in Mars. 

How humanity fights itself on the Red Planet in the second season of Nat Geo's Mars

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Nov 15, 2018, 2:40 PM EST (Updated)

Nat Geo's Mars returned this week with the narrative taking an ambitious jump five years into the future to 2033. The once problematic Mars colony is now flourishing under the guidance of the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), so much so, that a for-profit company, Lukrum Industries, is sending miners to the planet to drill for resources.

It's that battle of science versus commerce that lays the foundation for Season 2 of the hybrid series that utilizes both documentary style talking-head experts to explain the functional, scientific realities that would encompass a Mars colony, and a traditional, character-based narrative. Season 2 is being guided by showrunner Deb Johnson (Nashville, ER), who sat down with SYFY WIRE to talk about the interesting perils of writing such a unique television series, and what they specifically wanted to explore this year.

Mars Nat Geo

Coming into the second season of Mars, what inspired you about the first season and what did you want to adjust moving forward?

Dee Johnson: I thought they did a remarkable job with what they did [in Season 1]. But, I wanted to delve more into character, as that was what was of interest to me. So, going into this season, I thought there's a way to do this, and that was what was intriguing. This hybrid... there was nothing else like it to me on the landscape. I thought this is just a new way of storytelling which is to bring this other element that both informs motivations and characters, and educates. If you could sync it up, it could be really an amazing thing as it grounds the show in a kind of reality that makes it all credible. It isn't just science fiction. It is science very, very possible, very soon.

So, when we began the season, I brought my scripted background into it, and we convened a writers' room, but we brought our documentary partners in from the very early stages. We talked about what the arc was gonna be and what each episode was gonna look like. We determined, sort of collectively, that the best way to go into this season is that we're about being there. And now, we've been there for nine years because we've jumped time a little bit. We we decided to come up with mostly analogous characters in real life that would understand our characters through what they're going through and then still have archival seminars and our big thinkers. We really worked hard to craft it and make it as seamless as we could.

As with any television narrative, you have to care about the characters, so how did you double-down on that this season?

Right! To me, event has much more impact when you're invested in those characters. Plus, I was just genuinely curious about who these people were. Why they were there? Why did they make the choices that they made that brought them to this place? I knew I was gonna dig in, and that's gonna need a certain amount of storytelling time so I was gonna lobby for as much storytelling time as possible. Basically, it's a 75/25 blend. Some episodes are more, or less, depending on what's going on. The challenge of this hybrid is if you're really getting into intense emotional stuff, then you have to be careful about crafting where you go in and out of the documentary. You don't wanna stop the dramatic tension, or the momentum. We worked really hard to figure out exactly where to put those in, and make it feel seamless, and not like, "We're gonna stop right now and do this…" It was a real challenge, but I think that we succeeded.

What does adding Lukrum Industries, and its business goals for Mars, do for the narrative?

I knew going into it that it was gonna be about being on Mars, and the first thing that pops into my mind is that you're gonna bring in some other people and you're gonna change the dynamic totally. And then what do you do with that? Who owns it? It's basically about the soul of the planet, right? I knew that was the over-arching theme, and within that, you're looking at each of these individual characters, because I was fascinated with them. We broke the general arc of the season and we knew it was gonna be this commerce versus industry thing. And we knew, at the end of the day, you can't do this alone and science has to be listened to, or we won't survive this. So, we know that's where we were going. And the secondary plot for me was essentially, how we're gonna survive this? It was about leadership.

Speaking of leadership, Hana Seung (Jihae Kim) is mission commander now. How does this new dynamic impact her?

I wanted Hana's leadership to be tested in a way that it had never been tested before. And, it was about leadership. Even for Leslie (Cosima Shaw), who is back on Earth, so it's about parallel leadership tracks. We looked at all those things, and arced it out. We knew the shaped of it. And then we just went in and we put all these other things in, like Hana being challenged from outside and within, and then even emotionally with the loss of her sister. I wanted her to be really tested. And it was taking characters like Marta (Anamaria Marinca) and exploring her point of view which was very rigid. How far will she go, and why was it so important to be this way? Or looking at the relationship between- what was great is the seeds were planted in season one. And then with Amelie (Clémentine Poidatz) and Javier (Alberto Ammann), they're there together on Mars. What's gonna happen? And what would happen?

It seems asking how humans would actually cope on Mars is one of the most fascinating aspects of the character exploration?

Yes! First off, I asked myself would I even go? Second, if I did go, what would I need? A bar ... and would I go crazy? (Laughs) You could have gone there thinking you're never gonna come back. But nine years in, are you hitting a wall and thinking, "I can't do this anymore."? I'm fascinated because that's what I think would ultimately be the reason why I probably wouldn't go to Mars. Because there's just too much I would miss about Earth.

Were you worried that the commerce versus science arc would create a negativity towards companies like Virgin or SpaceX who are also committing to space exploration?

At the end of the day, to me, it was hopeful. One of the many things that is great about Nat Geo is that all the programming is rooted in fact. We took as much facts as we could and extrapolated just a little bit. It's right around the corner, all this stuff that we're doing. And so, there's not really an agenda per se, but it's about the science, and science being listened to. And not politicizing science. Like, there's this one guy that we follow in the Arctic. He's out there and spends nine months out of the year, doing this research. He's not doing it because he votes for anybody. He's doing it because he's a scientist. And in the case of our people, they have been there longer, they understood the planet more. Let's just understand things more before we start going at it, whole hog. We need each other to survive. We're not gonna get out of this alive if we don't have each other. There's just one race, the human race.

How much have you learned about Mars since working on the show?

It's not like I knew a ton about Mars, but it was really interesting. It was a lot, but it was really a fantastic learning curve. And that's where you get consultants who can think from a story point of view. Then you can take that truth being stranger than fiction thing, and go to town on it. It was fun.

What's the prospect, and possible narrative, of a Season 3?

We left it pretty open-ended. The beautiful thing about a show like this is, they jump time even within Season 1. So, you could pick [the story] up right away, or there could be another jump. The stars are the limit, right?

Nat Geo's Mars airs Mondays at 9/8c.

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