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Mars adventure

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 18, 2020

Last week, without really meaning to, I found myself speeding ‘Away’ to Mars. Only vicariously, of course! Aboard the good ship Netflix.

Away is the name of a 10-part TV series starring Hilary Swank. If I had heeded the advice of an early review, I would have yawned before even looking in its direction. According to the critic, the series is too slow for those of us who have spent the past couple of decades trekking and warring between the stars. Despite the warning, however, on a sleepy afternoon when I should have been doing laundry and/or meeting urgent deadlines, I clicked the “play” triangle.

Three days later, I emerged teary-eyed and uplifted. There are stirring themes! Loyalties are tested! Physical boundaries stretched to the limit! And, of course, there’s the emotional masala that must be slathered onto a story involving a mother who leaves her husband and teenage daughter behind, in order to reach the Red Planet.

Despite all the predictable small-screen melodrama, some features of this series really do bend the stereotypes. The five members of that crew, for instance: Three men, two women; and both women are mothers. Five nationalities: Swank is the American, of course; but the other mother is Chinese. The men are Russian, Ghanaian-UK and... raise a cheer... Indian! The role of Ram Arya is played very likeably by British actor Ray Panthaki, using an accent that’s a gentle blend of chicken tikka and Marmite.

Given the current state of technology, it takes three years for a crew to get to Mars and back. Unlike most of the space dramas we’re used to, this one focuses on the emotional dimension of being imprisoned at close quarters with four other humans, all highly intelligent, flawed and occasionally irrational. The fact that much of the urban world is currently experiencing some version of cramped living conditions on account of the pandemic makes this drama grimly relatable.

I’ve noticed that in recent years, when I see women playing lead roles in action adventures, I think she’s really just a guy. Aside from their appearance, for instance, women warriors in science-fictional conflicts behave much the same as their male counterparts. In Away, by contrast, the entire slant of the episodes has what seemed to me to be a distinctly feminine flavour. Emotional or psychological distress is given the same importance as any mechanical malfunction. Instead of a few token bits of female eye-candy at the space Centre, the young techies with long hair and earrings are just as likely to be female as male.

The result is a space drama that feels remarkably realistic. Swank grows visibly lean and desperate as one crisis follows another. I thought her performance was amazing and somehow heartbreaking. At one point, she’s burning up with dehydration. Her crew member says, “You can no longer make tears...” Overcome with empathy right then, I produced enough to fill the spacecraft’s water reservoir all the way to Mars and back!

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on September 18, 2020
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