Music in film and television – Mars

Fifth from the left.

I have recently been watching the new National Geographic/Ron Howard TV program Mars. And it is no good. It is an awkward mix of documentary footage and interviews with people like Elon Musk who are working on getting humans to Mars, and tedious melodrama. The acting and the dialogue are clunky and wooden, while the story itself is painted with such broad strokes that all I can see is a barn. Everything is a plot device designed to illustrate the “danger of the week” and its transparency is grating.

The third episode (they’re drip-feeding one a week as if it is something I should look forward too and I am only persisting with it because I paid for it and didn’t realise I’d be made to wait a week at a time to be annoyed and disappointed) is even more boring than the first two.

The concept of lava tubes is introduced in the interview footage, then there is a dramatised scene of the crew looking for a lava tube, then of the team back on earth pressing the point that without a lava tube the mission will fail, then they cut to the pre-flight “interviews” where the crew discusses the lava tubes, then they find a suitable lava tube, then they explain what happened in regards to the lava tube discovery in the previous scene…. you get the picture. The science is dumbed down to sub-History Channel depths so that a cockerspaniel could follow it. For anyone who understands a concept the first time, the 15 subsequent scenes explaining it in 15 different ways are beyond tedious. All the episodes have been like this.

One of my main problems with the series as a whole, are the musical cues. A film or TV show can live or die on the music used. Or not used. Being a Ron Howard production, there is the schmaltz you’d expect. Not least in the soundtrack. The third episode features a visually arresting scene where an astronaut is lowered into a volcano on Mars. The actor is saying her lines about how there is nothing down there. She can’t see anything… she can’t hear anything… yet all the audience can hear is her wooden reading and the maudlin strings swelling behind the scene. If the point is to convey the depth of the oppressive nothing that exists in the blackness of a dead Martian volcano, then why the James Horner* strings? Why not adopt the approach of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body” episode? The lack of music makes the entire 50 minutes an intense television experience. The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock has no music, which adds to its eeriness, and No Country For Old Men‘s almost complete lack of music only adds to the vastness of the Texan landscape and the trouble in which Llewelyn finds himself. A string ensemble that sounds kinda like Titanic/Braveheart/Glory/An American Tail: Fievel Goes West is distracting and removes any tension. The scene could have been utterly terrifying, preying on the human fear of the unknown and instead it’s about as tense as an episode of M*A*S*H.

*James Horner hasn’t actually done the score. I am using his name as a shorthand for tone deaf movie scoring.