New space drama Away, which launches on Netflix today Friday September 4th, feels like a show out of time. The series focuses on mankind’s first mission to Mars, with a crew of international astronauts led by an American, Commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank). In her crew are a Russian cosmonaut and engineer Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), an Air Force fighter pilot from India Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), a Chinese chemist,Lu Wang (Vivian Wu), and a British citizen from Ghana, renowned botanist,Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh). Each has a special set of skills meant to make the seven-month space flight run smoothly, and each also has a personality set to create conflict with the other astronauts.
Away seems to have been beamed in from an alternate universe, one where we still believe in the fundamental competence of our government to achieve something noble and worthwhile… and not, say, the kind of universe that would produce something like Netflix’s other recent space series, Space Force. It’s structured like a network show from a different decade rather than one meant to be binged. The first season essentially follows a case-of-the-week format, as a different problem arises for the crew each episode that must be solved so they can continue on their journey to the Red Planet.
The episodes split their time between the crew and Mission Control down on Earth, where we find Emma’s husband Matt (Josh Charles) providing crucial guidance to NASA about the problems Emma and her crew are facing up above. Matt was an astronaut-in-training himself until he discovered he had an inherited disease that prevented him from flying, so he focuses all of his energy on making sure things go right for Emma during her three-year stint away from her family. In this way, Away is most reminiscent of the competence-porn of Ron Howard’s Apollo 11 or Ridley Scott’s The Martian; problems are there to be solved with flashes of inspiration, mathematical ingenuity, and some good old-fashioned teamwork.
This all may sound like I’m being a little negative, but I’m really not. The tried-and-true formula of a competently made space drama works for a reason; not every show needs to be full of ingenuity and genre reinvention to be worthwhile. Away is extremely watchable precisely because of all of the above; this is a show that knows exactly what it wants to be, and it delivers on just about all of those fronts. It’s thrilling to watch the crew work together and figure out solutions with Mission Control, and the emotional stakes of Emma’s increasing panic over her decision to leave her husband and daughter millions of miles behind resonates especially hard thanks to Hilary Swank’s bravura performance.
In another move that makes Away feel like a network drama from a few decades ago, each episode focuses on a different crew member, Lost-style. We’re given flashbacks to their youth or to their recent past, memories that thematically resonate with the particular struggles they are currently dealing. This is a device that tends to work for me — I didn’t even hate it in the ill-fated, dreadful The I-Land — but unfortunately, in Away, the attempts at deepening the characters feel perfunctory. Each episode only has a handful of flashbacks, a couple of evocative scenes meant to echo the struggle of the week, whereas something like Lost would have an entire storyline play out in memory, giving us a flashback at least once an act. Furthermore, there are only 10 episodes in the first season, so most of the characters only get one or two flashback episodes; the rest of the time, their interiority tends to fade into the background.
This is unfortunately especially the case when it comes to Lu, the Chinese astronaut who we learn in episode three (“Half the Sky”) is hiding a secret relationship back home. Moreover, we learn that — even though she is married to a man and has left a son back on Earth — Lu has been having an affair with Mei (Nadia Hatt), one of the NASA communications officers. This storyline feels especially regressive — again, like something from a different decade — defining Lu for the entire episode fully around her sexuality, her infidelity to her husband, and her outing to the crew. It’s not enough that she’s in most ways by far the most competent member of the team, nor is it meant to be inspiring that the most competent one on the team is a lesbian. (Or bisexual; the episode doesn’t make the distinction). In the episode supposed to be about Lu, the wringer she gets put through is more of an excuse to deepen the audience’s appreciation for Emma, who shuts down all gossip on the crew and comforts Lu at her lowest point, even though Lu didn’t have Emma’s back during an earlier dispute.
And then… that’s all we get for most of the season. I will say that the series does bring it home in the last few episodes, finding a way to make Lu’s sexuality matter more than just how it affects those around her. But still, it’s disheartening to see the Lu-centric episode read as so outdated. Ultimately it feels like an attempt at added diversity, meant to show that the heterosexual lead of the show is accepting. Vivian Wu’s performance is great, and she really sells the emotional impact of her outing and her struggle against the unsupportive Chinese government that wants to keep her identity a secret, but I wish it had all played out differently.
This is, I think, a side-effect of having only ten episodes in the first season. A traditional network show would have had 22+ hours to deepen the characters and their backstories, so perhaps if we’d revisited Lu’s past more than once, and she had been given more to do in the present that seemed directly impacted by it aside from being outed, it wouldn’t have felt so pat.
It’s a shame, because there is a lot to love about Away. I’m a sucker for a space story, and some of the imagery in Away is just gorgeous. Hilary Swank gets a few truly transcendent moments where she contemplates the wonder of existence, and it makes for some breathtaking sequences. All of the performances are good; Josh Charles is as reliable as ever, as is Talitha Bateman, a young actress who I’ve been impressed by every time I’ve seen her since 2017’s Annabelle: Creation. There’s not a false note aboard the spaceship, either; Mark Ivanir is particularly great as Misha, a man who’s terrified to realize his eyesight might be fading the closer they get to Mars.
Hopefully, Away is enough of a success that it earns a second season, a second chance to revisit these characters and to find ways to make their identities matter more than just for what sets them apart from each other. Because we could use more competence-porn right now, and competence-porn with strong LGBTQ+ storylines sounds to me like the best competence-porn of all.
By Eric Langberg
Away is now streaming globally on Netflix.