Life on Mars: A look at the sets of National Geographic Channel's new series

I have been to Mars. I felt the regolith of its surface spill in my hands. I wandered the living quarters of the habitat, read pages from a book in the cantina, secured airlocks, and learned a little about living on the red planet.

And it just so happens I was able to do this in a soundstage on Earth, in Budapest, to be specific, last summer on a visit to the set of National Geographic Channel’s Mars.

The scripted/documentary hybrid series, premiering tonight at 9 p.m., is a bold experiment in science entertainment and communication. Set in 2033, the story follows the first human mission to Mars, while real-life “big thinkers” serve as voices from the past to frame the narrative.

You can check out my longer review of the series here, which I think kicks off tonight with a strong start (check out my review here). But I admit I visited the set with a healthy dose of skepticism last year. But what I encountered at the Origo Studios in Budapest (also the host studio to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner sequel) was a full-on, nerd-out worthy set that really felt like an alien planet -- and future home?

Visually, Mars is not attempting to be 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even The Martian, said production designer Sophie Becher. The approach was to look at the “reality” of what space travel will be, instead of basing the aesthetic on overly stylized sci-fi.

Interestingly, the visual reference was more Das Boot instead of Kubrick’s epic. The craft the astronauts travel in, the Daedalus, is quite claustrophobic. And only a small part of the 18-story-high craft is intended to be habitable, with a flight deck, mid-deck and corridor. The craft looks retro compared to the spacecraft we’ve come to seen in sci-fi, which are slick and futuristic. Moreover, the initial idea is for the craft, itself, to serve as home to the settlers for a number of years on the planet.

But the habitat, which will come to be known as Olympus Town, is where they'll end up. The settlement will be located within vast caves (or lava tubes) of Olympus Mons, the planet’s biggest volcano, which is more than twice as tall as Mount Everest, in a valley on the equatorial area.

This required more artistic license, said Becher. Part of the town is inflatable, with moveable “bendy” corridors, that are required to be somewhat mobile. It has to be adaptable enough for the harsh conditions on Mars, and might even have to be lowered into a cave. Becher looked to disaster areas where structures have to be assembled quickly using basic materials (there aren’t any bulldozers, after all), and in rough terrains.

The so-called haptic modules are similar to Japanese pods. As well as a workshop and green house -- with the architecture inspired by the Gare do Oriente train station in Lisbon, designed by Santiago Calatrava -- there is a main central dome with community living. Each individual’s hab has a quilted wall area with a personalized color. But on Mars, don’t expect these characters to have their own kitchens, and instead have a socialist way of living. And each section is designed to be inhabitable on its own, should a disaster force the astronauts to close it off.

Beyond shooting in the soundstage in Budapest, the production did shoot in Morocco – as opposed to Jordan, the typical stand-in for the planet. Instead of being “super red,” VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson said this Mars is more natural, with a variety of looks. There is a vastness of white sand, with a red tinge. Rather than the powerful winds seen in The Martian, the storms in Mars are more of a soup, or extreme fog/mist that presents a different set of dangers to the astronauts, such as “red lung.”

Take a look at the gallery below of my tour of the Mars sets, and soak up the authenticity of this new show. You'll get a look at the habitats, costumes, galley, and even the production and costume design offices (as well as a shot of a little sci-fi shoutout in the form of an iconic book spotted in the dining room set).

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