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Stars on Mars, Fox’s celebrity Big Brother in space, is thinner than Mars’ atmosphere

Stars on Mars, Fox’s celebrity Big Brother in space, is thinner than Mars’ atmosphere
The Stars on Mars "celebronauts" look bored on their first day in the habitat (Photo by Brook Rushton/FOX)

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.

A dome and space station-looking building with antennas with a redish sky behind them
Stars on Mars was filmed in Coober Pedy, Australia, where this habitat set was constructed—with what I assume is a reference to the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 (Photo by Brook Rushton/FOX)

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.

A person in a gray space jumpsuit holding his arm up with a fist; another person sits in the corner of the frame
Vanderpump Rules’ Tom Schwartz in Stars on Mars faux habitat; Ariel Winter looks on (Photo by Brook Rushton/FOX)

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.

People in space suits with lights on them lift a metal tower; it's dark and dusty
The Stars on Mars cast competes in their first challenge (Photo by Brook Rushton/FOX)

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

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Happy discussing!

Keith

Tuesday 18th of July 2023

Well, now we see why Fox didn't give reviewers later episodes. Episodes Five and six have been centered on Lance Armstrong's efforts to debate his views on exclusion of trans athletes that offended much of the cast (though might be favored by Fox News viewers).

Ariel becomes the face of the opposition, and gets a shrewish edit as Lance tries to get her evicted.

And apparently things were even worse than shown.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/obsessed/adam-rippon-calls-lance-armstrong-greatest-cheater-after-anti-trans-comments-on-stars-on-mars

Until then it was a nice campy trifle (and the science appears to be based on watching The Martian a few times.)

k

Tuesday 11th of July 2023

Haha, it's such a terrible show. I only watch it because I watch most things about Mars and survival. The cast is mostly nauseating and predictable. I mean out of all the people...this is who they find? And the missions and way things are set up, it's all pretty lame. I'd like to see some real science and growth and well actually I'd much rather this was a serious HAB on Mars experiment/mission with Astronaut hopefuls. Reality-TV is a cancer on society. I mean astronauts are the best humanity has to offer, for the most part, and celebs creating a false-reality with ridiculous and scripted behavior is some of the worst humanity has to offer..on a good day.

I also hate when characters leave each week. I want to see them grow or mentally break to leave. There is no team in this show, just competitors and alliances and that's always lame. The most deserving or hardworking get the boot..what's good about that? Survival shows are fun but when you can vote each other off, it's no longer fun. Then the show did this weird thing with airing a scene where they painted Lance as some anti-transgender guy and all the clueless millennials ganged up on him. That'll cost them some viewers. Lance actually just made a series on the issue, which is pretty good. But yeah, I'm late to this, randomly found it. haha

marbe

Tuesday 13th of June 2023

I give it an F for Marshawn's foul mouth alone. Found out later he was a football?????? player. That explains his mouth. Soo bad, every 3rd word had to be bleeped. CST was 7PM and little kids will want to watch because of the alleged robot dog. Not in sight, by the way. Everyone was so confused taking away from the goal. FOX I am ashamed for you and of you. D list cast. Would have shut it off after first set of expletives, but I was waiting for the robot dog! A couple of funny moments from Shatner, who is always a stitch, but even he stayed away from being active in this "dog," pun intended, show. Set good. I thought Tallulah was the best. She seemed to have the best grasp on savaging the mission. I will give it another week to try for the dog. I will have the volume turned off and be doing something else until the dog shows, if he shows. If he does not, then I'm done. This is a very painful show to watch. Wasn't even sure who was actually sent home. Way too many reality shows on TV. Most alleged celebrities looked like they were regretting what they signed up for. From the reviews I read, you either liked it a lot, or not at all!

Misty

Tuesday 13th of June 2023

I was disappointed in the group of people selected to go to Mars.

They do not appreciate the environment they are in. In other words, the whole thing was wasted on the cast.

I would love to see NERDS in this show. NERDS who would be giddy just being there; you know, Star Trek Nerds! When I saw the layout of HAB 1701 I was amazed, fascinated and thrilled, but then disappointed by seeing football players, comedians, and a past drug user.

I would like to see something a little more realistic with people who have science backgrounds, not movie stars. I did like Shatner.

AK

Tuesday 6th of June 2023

Only because I know you'll appreciate, Coober Pedy was also a destination on the second season of "The Amazing Race"!