Ron Howard & Courteney Monroe Talk MARS

The second season of MARS premiered on November 12 on National Geographic, with a simulcast on Nat Geo Mundo, and continues the adventure presented in the first season, which chronicled the first attempt to colonize the Red Planet.

Once again MARS features its innovative blend of scripted drama, special effects and documentary footage, including interviews with experts, leading scientists and NASA astronauts. While the first season focused on the journey of the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF) to Mars, set in 2033 and 2037, and the perils and challenges of surviving, the second season jumps to 2042. The IMSF has established a colony, Olympus Town, but their members are not the only ones living there; so are scientists and miners from the for-profit corporation Lukrum Industries.

“The central storyline this season is really about the tension between exploration and exploitation,” explained Courteney Monroe, the CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, at a presentation for the press in Manhattan. “It posits the question, Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes on Mars as we have here on Earth? And to ***Image***explore this, we travel to the Arctic in our documentary sequences, where the battle between preservation and private industry is playing out in real time today.”

As Monroe points out, the narrative in season two is supported by science. The “Big Thinkers”—as Nat Geo calls them—interviewed in season two include Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX; the theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku; former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan; and bestselling author of The Martian, Andy Weir.

Part of the creative team, once again, is Ron Howard, who discussed how the idea of combining scripted drama and documentary sequences came about for season one. “Justin Wilkes, of RadicalMedia, brought us this idea of doing a documentary about all the work that is going into going to Mars. We began to explore that; that was interesting; Nat Geo was curious about that. Then we started talking about understanding the adventure. Brian Grazer and I have always been intent on trying to take people on these experiences as much as possible, personalize them, create suspense through them and through that connection that you can have through the adventure.”

Howard went on to explain that they couldn’t do a documentary about going to Mars because that hadn’t happened yet. However, through research and interviews with scientists and experts, Howard learned that there was a body of serious science and research into the human experience of going to Mars. “I didn’t realize how much work was actually going on—not just theory, but real experimentation and interesting projects. So then the idea became, what if we do both? What if we did the doc about what’s going on now, but we didn’t just do little snippets and 20-second reenactments? What if we really tried to do a great science fiction show that was informed by this research?”

That was the genesis of season one, and Howard credits Nat Geo and Monroe for their willingness to take the risk on this type of project. “There is no such thing as innovation without experimentation, and with experimentation, of course, risk. Those words don’t necessarily go in the same sentence with network executives. The kinds of risks that were involved in tackling this subject this way is something I’ve never been around. And Courteney and Nat Geo understood it and also watched us go through some growing pains and a process of discovery to get to that point in season one where we had something we were very proud of.”

For season two of MARS, Howard, Grazer and Michael Rosenberg from Imagine Entertainment are executive producers, along with Wilkes for RadicalMedia as well as Jon Kamen and Tommy Turtle.

“Between all the research that we did for season one,” explains Howard, “and our deeper understanding of what the journey to Mars and the adventure was going to be like, and into the settlement phase, we were able to go into season two with a great deal more confidence. Justin Wilkes came back from season one. We added Dee Johnson who is a very experienced showrunner [Nashville] and we bet more on the characters. We bet more on human nature’s side of the story and still found great doc stories to support it.”

The human stories in the six episodes of season two include romances, pregnancy, epidemics, breakdowns, power outages, injuries and socializing, illustrating what Monroe said: “This season we have really upped the drama and the stakes.”