Five years ago, Gimlet released The Habitat, a podcast that followed the lives of six people “secluded in an imitation Mars habitat where they will work as imitation astronauts for one very real year.”
Audio was recorded by those participating in the Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or Hi-Seas, which is on the volcano Mauna Loa and says it “has been the home to five successful long-duration (4 to 12 month) NASA Mars simulation missions and tens of other analog space missions in collaboration with multiple space agencies, companies, and organizations worldwide.”
The edited episodes, narrated by host Lynn Levy, produced an increasingly entertaining and compelling look at the effects of isolation, and also the science of life in space. (Tangent: Screw Spotify for what it’s doing to Gimlet, not that Gimlet needed help destroying itself.)
Enter Fox’s Stars on Mars (Fox, Mondays at 8), which isolates twice as many people in a Mars-like habitat.
Those 12 people are celebrities, and by that I mean reality TV stars and and/or people who will inspire people to say “who?!”: Lance Armstrong, Natasha Leggero, Marshawn Lynch, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Rippon, Ronda Rousey, Tom Schwartz, Richard Sherman, Tinashe, Porsha Williams Guobadia, Tallulah Willis, and Ariel Winter.
While there is an actual Mars simulation in Hawaii, the celebrities are on a set constructed in Australia. It’s specifically Coober Pedy, which I know best from Instant Hotel season two, and which just looks like another planet without any set dressing.
“This looks incredible. A lot of money,” Christopher Mintz-Plasse says when he enters the house.
The set itself at times resembles a well-crafted theme park set for a generic space ride. There are some cheesy components such as the “decontamination zone” and its blasts of air, and the couches and kitchen look like they could be in any reality TV show in a house.
Like the set itself, Stars on Mars has some drama, cheese, and vague references to science, but because it doesn’t pick one of those, it just kinds of drifts off into space.
The most cheese comes from “mission director” William Shatner, which I accidentally typed as “missing director,” though that works, too.
Shatner sat in front of a teleprompter and read some stuff, and then cashed a check. The most clever part of his role is the way he pretends he cannot hear or respond to the celebrities because of a delay between Earth and Mars communication. Shatner disappears, and maybe that’s for the best.
There’s also a fake voice that they pretend is talking to the celebrities, even though it usually sounds like it was added in post, since the celebrities don’t respond directly to it, either.
With the robotic cameras and the house full of D-listers, this could be Celebrity Big Brother. But Stars on Mars has no defined game.
The format is basically some random time-filling habitat tasks, a challenge, and a vote to boot someone.
There’s downtime gives time for celebrity interaction, yet nothing so far as interesting as what the revival of The Surreal Life delivered.
There are funny moments. Christopher Mintz-Plasse suggesting Tilda Swinton might join the habitat, “award-winning actor” Ariel Winter (she won SAG awards for being part of Modern Family’s ensemble) confusing Lance Armstrong for Neil Armstrong, who’s not only been dead for more than a decade, but would be 92 today. The editing shows us a picture of Neil just so we can be sure, a fun touch.
Armstrong, by the way, describes his recent experiences as “living a very complicated public life,” which is a creative way of describing the doping and “serial cheating” that necessitate several Wikipedia articles to explain it all. Will anyone ever talk to him about that?
They don’t in the first episode. Almost nothing happens in the whole episode until the first challenge, which seems to be the only game element: a challenge then an elimination.
That first challenge is to repair a communications tower outside the habitat, in a raging wind storm. Is this a scientifically accurate simulation? We’re not told, but this is a Fox reality TV show, so lol.
“I don’t know who the hell designed this, but this is really realistic,” Porsha says during. Assembling the tower while wearing spacesuits and helmets proves to be a true challenge. When they come back inside, their faces are caked with sand, probably because their helmets and spacesuits are not actually airtight.
Two celebrities remain inside to read directions, written by the producers, to their fellow celebrities via radios.
What the celebrities outside are doing outside does indeed look realistic, but is edited too chaotically, so it’s hard to tell what’s happening or what they’re doing. They’re working together, so there’s no competition element.
After they come inside, the challenge leader declares who the best were, and then they all decide who among the remaining three is going home. It’s an anticlimactic end.
“I think I’m critical because I’m one of the hottest people here,” Adam Rippon says, making a hilarious argument to stay. That’s the best part of the elimination, which has no stakes and no drama.
I love a challenge-based show, like CBS’s Tough As Nails, which has three challenges an episode, and loses one player each week, and everyone, including me, are often a mess of tears at that time.
That’s what Stars on Mars needs: more challenges, more humanity. Alas, the season preview suggests very little is to come, just some shouting during challenges.
Perhaps that’s misleading. Perhaps future challenges will be extraordinary. I don’t know. (Fox made only the premiere episode available to TV critics, and “for informational purposes only,” meaning not for review, which to me does not send a message of confidence about a show’s quality.)
Could this evolve into The Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip, Celebrity Big Brother, The Surreal Life, or a mashup of those? Will the isolation get to them? Will there be more science stuff? Quite possibly.
Will I watch again? Eh. Beyond the production design, there’s nothing in this first episode that made me curious enough to want to see more. And for a show that’s set on faux Mars, that’s too bad.
Stars on Mars
Stars on Mars’ format and episodes are thinner than Mars’ atmosphere. C-
What works for me:
- The set design
- The realism of the challenge
- The potential
What could be better:
- Finding some actual stars
- Giving them something to do besides one challenge
- A clearer sense of the game and/or tone