My wife and I are almost through the Netflix science fiction series Away. We really wanted to love it, because what’s not to love about a sci-fi show with fantastic special effects (including zero-G scenes we absolutely believe), a wonderfully diverse cast, and a female commander (played by Hilary Swank!)?
Honestly, the central character should not be Commander Emma Green. It should be Dr. Lu Wang. I’m not saying this because Lu is gay, I’m saying it because the burdens she bears and the dramatic tensions they create are far more interesting. She’s a woman representing a highly patriarchal culture. She’s in a loveless marriage (practically required by said culture) but in love with a woman she’s not allowed to talk to. She’s had to leave her young son behind, knowing her husband is now the only parent who can be there for the next three years. She starts out the series being judgmental and wrong, but gradually progresses to become less rigid and more understandable. She’s an intriguing character we want to know more about.
Emma Green is defined 100% by her family. In the pilot episode, we are presented with a woman competent and tough enough to not only be selected for Earth’s first international mission to Mars, she is given command of it. And then we are shown that this competent, tough woman, with the expectations of the whole world on her shoulders, will in fact throw all that away 24 hours before liftoff because her husband has a medical emergency and her teen daughter is crying down the phone line for her to come home. They could have done so much more with her character in the pilot, showing her agonizing about the fact that she has to leave yet knowing that at this point, there is no other option. Instead, we’re treated to Emma shouting at her supervisor “Don’t give me that feminist bullshit!” when the supervisor says, quite rightly, that she will set women back by decades if she quits now. (And given that this is a huge, international endeavor, it won’t just be women in the space program — it will be global.)
Emma only goes when her husband, fresh out of surgery, tells her to. I slapped my forehead so hard that I still have the bruise.
As the ship and the series progress toward Mars, we learn more about the crew members, their backstories, and what drives them today. Every one of the four crew are more interesting than Emma and her continual second-guessing regarding her decision to go. I have no problem believing that she would feel torn about leaving her family behind. My problem is believing that after a lifetime of pursuing this dream and two years of specific training for it — including rigorous psychological screening — the leader of a three-year space mission would suddenly want take-backsies and spend the next several months looking yearningly out the nearest porthole toward Earth. If this is the case, then that psychological screening was really off the mark.
Also, when I sign up to watch a series about a mission to Mars, I want to see the mission to Mars, not endless scenes of an angsty teen on Earth acting out because her mama went to space. (We have taken to fast-forwarding through those.)
But those zero-G scenes on the ship, where we see the crew living and moving about as if this is all perfectly normal — which for them, it is — are marvelously well done. The ship design is fabulous; we love the scenes from outside, showing it as a whole. The spacewalk in the second episode was thrilling. The increasing sense of distance becomes heavier with each episode, as the crew and their families and coworkers must rely on voice recordings or emails when latency makes calls impossible.
If we could just have a commander who isn’t entirely defined by her role as wife and mother, this might be a great show. Dr. Lu Wang, can you please take over?
ADDENDUM: We just watched the final episode. It was marvelous! Tense, believable, fabulous special effects, Emma finally shaped up, and to put a bow around the whole thing, Dr. Lu Wang issued a middle finger for the ages. We may have to watch the last half of that episode again.
In fact, the last three episodes were very good, excluding the boring teen angst. Had the whole series been like that, I would have given it a solid A.