It has been 30 years since actress Kate Mulgrew went where few women had gone before on Star Trek: Voyager, portraying Kathryn Janeway, the first female starship captain to figure prominently in the iconic franchise.
Now it’s Hilary Swank’s turn as Emma Green, commander of the first, er, manned mission to Mars, in Away. The entertaining 10-episode drama series is streaming now on Netflix.
The show is considerably less than family-friendly, given its adult themes, some crude language and a gay subplot – although this last element, like a scene of marital lovemaking, is handled discreetly.
Yet the dynamic interplay of thrilling outer-space adventure and complex personal stories will satisfy discerning adult fans of the genre as well as those who may be a bit wary of science fiction.
Series creator and co-writer Andrew Hinderaker serves up much more than an addictive, at times nail-biting, soap opera.
Buoyed by superb special effects and first-rate acting, Away is an inspiring celebration of human achievement on an epic scale, a coming together of rival nations to achieve the impossible.
As Emma tells the press, “Reaching Mars might prove to be the greatest achievement not only for science but for the future of our planet.”
The year is 2026, and the five astronauts of the NASA Mars Joint Initiative aboard the Atlas rocket hail from different parts of the world.
There’s Emma from the United States; Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir) is Russian; Lu Wang (Vivian Wu) represents China; Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki) is a native of India; and Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh) is a British citizen born in Ghana.
On the eight-month journey to the Red Planet, endurance and perseverance are essential.
The crew faces a plethora of mechanical problems, many life-threatening. Even more challenging is learning to get along in such close quarters.
Tensions simmer below the surface. Ship’s surgeon Ram is the only one who trusts Emma’s ability to lead the mission, but that’s because he has a secret crush on her.
Veteran cosmonaut Misha wears his superpower prejudices on his sleeve. Anti-social Lu conceals a career-ending secret: She has fallen hard for a female Chinese co-worker at NASA.
And poor Kwesi, the mission’s botanist and a space rookie, is a nervous wreck.
Not helping matters is the emotional tether to loved ones back on Earth (cellphone reception is great in outer space).
The entire mission to Mars and back will last three years, an extreme parenting challenge for astronauts with kids at home.
For her part, Emma is wracked by guilt.
Hours before launch, her husband, Matt (Josh Charles), a fellow astronaut, suffers a stroke, leaving him paralysed. Distraught, Emma wants to head home, but Matt insists she stay and make history – even though their teen daughter, Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman), is a mess.
Needless to say, “Lex” has to grow up fast, navigating her father’s recovery as well as freshman year in high school.
She has a surrogate mother in Melissa (Monique Gabriela Curnen), Emma’s NASA colleague, and a friend in Melissa’s spirited daughter Cassie (Felicia Patti), who has Down syndrome. Cassie’s prominence is one of several pro-life aspects to Away.
In a flashback, for example, super-ambitious Emma toys with the possibility of having an abortion, fearful that pregnancy will disrupt her career path.
That this would have been the wrong choice is made unmistakably clear.
Most unexpected – but welcome – is the incorporation of faith and prayer into the lives of characters young and old. Kwesi, who is Jewish, prays frequently in times of danger.
He gathers his fellow astronauts to invoke God’s blessings before every dangerous procedure, thanking the Almighty afterward for deliverance.
Then there’s Lex’s new boyfriend, Isaac (Adam Irigoyen), a junior. He shares his ongoing but concealed grief at the loss of his father, a soldier killed in the Middle East.
This helps Lex cope with her obsessive fear that her mother will never return.
On Christmas Eve, Isaac has a surprise for his girlfriend, and Lex sneaks out of the house.
The “surprise” turns out to be Midnight Mass, and Isaac invites Lex to join his mother and siblings in the front pew.
On another occasion, Isaac takes Lex back to church and teaches her how to pray the Our Father. Prayer, he says, is how he copes with both life and loss.
Scenes like these make Away a real, though not unmixed, blessing for grown viewers.