I had only planned to watch the first episode or two of Hulu’s latest series, The First — about the first human mission to Mars (not to be confused with The First Man, Ryan Gosling’s film about the first man on the Moon) — but in the first few minutes of the Beau Willimon (House of Cards) series, a rocket carrying five people to Mars exploded seconds after liftoff, killing all onboard. For anyone alive when the Challenger exploded, it felt like a narrative cheat, but it’s one that worked. I was hooked.
The rest of the series, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the opening minutes of the pilot, although I will say this: The First does deliver one hell of a stunning finale episode, if you can slog your way through the first seven episodes, which are just barely compelling enough to keep viewers interested in seeing what’s next.
What’s next, however, is not a two-and-a-half year trip to Mars and back. The First is not a series about going into space as much as it is a series about the toll being an astronaut can take on their families. The explosion at the beginning of the series is not designed to set up an underdog series about overcoming tragedy. The explosion works as a backdrop to the rest of the series, a way to raise the stakes for the next five people who go to space, and to create in the viewer the same sense of apprehension the families of the astronauts in the series must feel knowing that their loved ones are not only taking a two-and-a-half year journey away from home but that they might not ever return.
Sean Penn is the star here, in case you are wondering why he’s been on the publicity circuit saying dumb things again. He plays Tom Hagerty, the commander of the Mars mission and a veteran astronaut whose career already took the ultimate toll on his late wife. Now he has a teenage daughter to take care of, and she’s in a fragile state after the death of her mother and her subsequent stint in rehab. Unfortunately for Hagerty, the whole “You know what you got into when you married me” shtick doesn’t work with his daughter, who is furious with her father for promising to do what’s best for her but instead doing the exact opposite. The call to space, apparently, is bigger than family.
The other four members of the team have their own issues, as well. Kayla Price’s (LisaGay Hamilton) issues have less to do with her home life than the feeling she has of being a Black lesbian being passed over as the commander by a white guy because Hagerty is a better public face to put on the mission in the wake of the tragedy. Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the CEO of the commercial outfit running the operation, has also been put in a delicate situation herself, and she has to play politics to gain government funding from Senators, who are not exactly inclined to put millions of dollars toward another mission that might end in tragedy.
Meanwhile, Sadie Hewitt (Hannah Ware) has to weigh her desire to go to space against her desire to start a family with her husband, who resents her for wanting to risk her life and leave for two years rather than have a kid together. Aiko Hakari (Keiko Agena) has to leave her mother behind, knowing that if she doesn’t die on the mission that if and when she returns, her mother — who has Alzheimer’s — will not remember her, if she manages to survive for three years.
The bulk of the series, however, is about the relationship between Hagerty and his daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who has something of a Dana Brody problem. She’s moody and depressed, and those feelings are only heightened by her father’s decision to go on the mission. While those feelings are completely understandable, mopiness doesn’t translate all that well into the narrative.
The biggest problem, however, with The First is that it promises another mission to Mars, but it doesn’t deliver on it until the final minutes of the season. Everything else in between the explosion of the first mission and the take-off of the second is a relationship drama, and not a particularly compelling one. Few of the characters outside of Hannah Ware and Sean Penn’s are well developed, and Sean Penn is not exactly a likable guy, even if he is a strong actor (his acting tells me he’s Tom Hagerty, but his damn face keeps reminding me that he’s Sean Penn). For most of us — save those of us whose loved ones go off to combat — it’s not a particularly relatable situation, either, so it’s hard to apply the emotions the series is designed to stir to ourselves, and it’s not a show that really endeavors to make up the difference by tapping into space-travel jingoism, either.
I will give The First this much, however: There were several moments throughout the series where I seriously contemplated bailing, but I’m ultimately glad I did not. The finale is terrific — tense, suspenseful, emotional, and incredibly well shot, and it successfully plays on every emotion conjured up by the sight of an exploding rocket in the pilot episode. It’s edge-of-your-seat thrilling, and for a series designed to be watched largely on our laptops and phones, that’s a fairly exceptional feat.
Header Image Source: Hulu