Although it starts on somewhat shaky ground, Away soon transforms itself into a hugely enjoyable space voyage drama with a wonderful central performance and a brilliant supporting cast that makes Netflix’s new sci-fi drama genuinely soar.
There is something wonderful about a great space saga, and not just in the Star Wars/Star Trek mould. When you have characters in realistically portrayed space shuttles, clad in the NASA logo, with some emotional drama involving worried families on the ground, it frequently makes for dramatic gold.
Over the years, cinema has given us some great space explorations stories, from Kubrick’s 2001 to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Martian to the intense dramas of Gravity and the historical Apollo 13. Unfortunately, it says a lot about gender norms in the film and television industry that of all those movies, only one has a female lead. This year has also seen the release of the Eva Green drama Proxima, although it devotes most of its run time to Green’s character training for her mission and the impact it will have on her relationship with her daughter as opposed to the actual visual wonders of space itself. Then there was Lucy in the Sky starring Natalie Portman, although once again, it was more pre-occupied with the drama on the ground as opposed to the stars.
With that in mind, Netflix’s Away becomes something of a wonder. Here is a ten-part series that devotes itself to being centred around a female character and has her be amongst the stars for much of the runtime, as Swank’s character Emma and her crew journey on the Atlas on a mission to be the first people to set foot on Mars. That it stars two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank and comes with Jason Katims and Matt Reeves amongst its executive producers gives the series an enticing promise that, thankfully, it delivers on for the most part.
It might be easy to not be convinced of that for the first two hours or so. Swank and co-star Josh Charles can do this sort of material in their sleep, but Andrew Hinderaker’s writing can sometimes veer a little too much toward the realm of soapy in the Earth-bound scenes involving Swank’s character Emma and her family.
The involvement of Katims here is interesting. Although not the creator, his presence is felt, and he delivers one of the best episodes as a writer in the shape of its fifth episode, a melancholy Christmas tale that does that thing that Katims does so well; it’s funny, dramatic and sad in a naturalistic way and fully cements the series’ style away from the soap opera dynamics of those earlier episodes into something more concrete and brilliant. Yes, it’s sentimental but like the best of Katims’ work on Friday Night Lights and his remake of Parenthood, you can’t help but shed tears and be moved, and all mostly because of the image of a wooden puppet of a dog, not to mention a Skype call ending sooner than it should.
In truth, Away makes it turn towards something special in the third episode. The series take an approach to its cast in a Lost-style manner with flashbacks in each episode filling in the backstories of Emma’s crew. The third episode focuses on Chinese astronaut Lu (a brilliant Vivian Wu) and her developing relationship with a Mei (Nadia Hatta), a member of Mission Control who is removed from her post by the Chinese National Space Administration when knowledge of their relationship is revealed.
It turns into a meditative and beautiful exploration of love, made even more powerful by exploring a same-sex relationship between two Asian characters. The episode is sweet and romantic, even finding fun in those lovely moments where Lu is taught English via the wonders of karaoke, but it is also achingly sad. The episode builds up to a conversation amongst the two that must surely rank as the most emotional telephone conversation in a television show since The Constant on Lost. It’s the moment that Away sheds any feeling of cliché and starts to turn into something genuinely better.
It also makes you wonder how cell phones can work in space, but even here the series has an ace up its sleeve when, halfway on their mission to Mars, communication will become more sparse as the distance between our lead characters and their families literally becomes bigger.
Space exploration makes for a brilliantly cinematic genre and Away is no exception. Clearly Netflix has spent quite a bit of money on the series because the CGI is very impressive and it has a genuine claustrophobic feel to some of the scenes, without ever becoming overbearing.
What makes it all work though are the characters, particularly on the Atlas. Everyone is cast to perfection and has their moment to shine, but it’s brilliantly anchored to Swank’s lead performance. Sometimes it’s easy to think of her as something of an underrated talent, although one has to remind themselves that she is, in fact, a two-time Academy Award winner. She brings grace and poise to Away, but brilliantly the series also realises how to utilise its ensemble cast meaning that Vivian Wu, Mark Ivanir, Ato Essandoah and Ray Panthaki also get brilliant scenes and stories of their own.
The cast and those characters don’t just have the effect of making Away fly. It positively soars.
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