The First: No alarm and no surprises

THE FIRST -- Sean Penn leads an ensemble cast in this near-future drama about a crew of astronauts attempting to become the first humans on Mars. Under the direction of visionary aerospace magnate Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the crew contends with peril and personal sacrifice as they undertake the greatest pioneering feat in human history. Denise Hagerty (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), shown. (Photo by: Paul Schrimaldi/Hulu)

Beautiful shot and thoughtful, The First ultimately hits all the beats you expect it too, with no surprises.

The First is a futuristic drama documenting the first manned mission to Mars. It’s set in the near future – the latter part of the 21st century – and as a result feels very contemporary, albeit with some lovely progressive tech. The lives of the characters are largely like ours, and the things they are facing at this new frontier are familiar.

I’ve seen plenty of criticism of this show but I loved it. It is slow, it’s a character study that relies on showing you things and giving you time to draw conclusions. There are a lot of elements that were predictable to the point of trope: none of the big name actors are on the first flight, they’re all on the ground. You know that flight isn’t making it. The tough decision on which astronaut doesn’t make the team that feels like an injustice – you know that’s going to right itself. There really aren’t any surprises. And I suppose for some, that’s an unforgivable flaw.

This is not twisting-turning television. The stakes are much more subtle. As such I think this works brilliantly as a series you binge-watch – it draws you in and holds you – and less as an episodic show where tension and big moments are needed to get you to hooked for the next episode. The BBC’s Bodyguard did this brilliantly. The First is an altogether different beast.

But I love this type of story: complex characters, dealing with their messy lives, trying to get themselves physically, mentally and existentially prepared for what might be a one-way journey. The purpose of it all is, inevitably, for that second launch. So we are now invested, we see what they have sacrificed, we know what they stand to lose. We know who will mourn them if the flight is as unsuccessful as the first.

And I love this type of sci fi. The subtlety of the near future and the new opportunities that space travel introduces in terms of ethical issues, and existential questions. For me, The First is beautiful, suspenseful and human. It is beautifully shot, the soundtrack is it’s own character. I felt it added perfectly to the at-times claustrophobic atmosphere of the show, a perfect audible metaphor for the mission ahead and the singular-mindedness of the astronauts.

For me, the First shone as an intricate portrayal of a group of complex, interconnected lives, undertaking a life-changing and possibly life-ending mission. They aren’t shown as brave beyond measure, they have complicated motivations, messy lives, and these issues aren’t resolved before they leave. They carry this chaotic humanity with them out into the vacuum of space.

From a craft point of view I loved the structure of the show. The time we spent with each character; the use of the past as an A story with the present as the B story in one episode; the episodic nature of the individual stories – the point at which they collide is already established – but seeing each character away from the mission, away from the group, you can understand what they bring to, and draw from this experience.

I’m working on a television series at the moment where I want to draw together stories from different points in the character’s lives and allow their convergence to inform how the viewer sees the events of the present.