Arts, Television, Review

‘Away’ Fails to Bring Outer Space Genre Into a New Era


Netflix’s latest outer space series, Away, attempts to pump some fresh blood into the old sci-fi genre. The show revolves around an international space mission called Atlas, which intends to explore the possibility of creating life on Mars. Representing international collaboration, Atlas’ crew comprises astronauts from all different nations. This enables Away to employ a diverse cast of characters, which includes Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), a botanist originally from Ghana but representing Britain; Lu (Vivian Wu), a Chinese chemist, Misha (Mark Ivanir), a Russian engineer, and Ram (Ray Panthaki), a doctor from India. But the commander of the crew, Emma Green (Hilary Swank) is American. Just as Emma embarks on this legendary expedition, her husband has a stroke, and the rest of the series focuses on both the mission and his recovery.

Though it takes a while to find its footing, Away is entertaining overall: The power dynamics between the crew members are intriguing, and Away boasts several fresh, original characters. The show is sure to captivate sci-fi fans through its depiction of zero gravity and life in space.

The problem with Away actually resides in its protagonist, Emma. Throughout the series, clips from life on the ship are interspersed with flashbacks from Emma’s perfect life back home. Her old lifestyle consisted of her husband barbecuing in their backyard, her daughter playing soccer, and the three of them playing scrabble and laughing at nothing. In other words, Away’s portrayal of “normal life” on Earth hinges on a heteronormative, two-parent American household.

The show does move on to focus on other crew members and their stories, such as Lu’s extramarital romance with another woman and Ram’s battle with familial trauma. The secondary characters are far more provocative than Emma and her family, but Netflix refuses to give them enough time in the spotlight. Every episode dedicates a significant amount of screen time to Matt and Alexis back on Earth, whose rather predictable storylines simply distract from the more interesting characters.

When drama does occur on the ship itself, you can count on Emma to save the day. She acts exactly as a commander should, making the plot quite predictable. Though the portrayal of a powerful woman in command is enjoyable, with Emma on board the ship, nothing is ever at stake. Emma and her family might have been an acceptable center stage in the ’90s, but now, the trio is just an anchor holding Away back from becoming a truly progressive, futuristic show.

Beyond Away’s boring protagonist, a greater issue is that it fails to meet Atlas’ own goal of international representation. The portrayal of East Asian characters, specifically, is simply stereotypical. As an Asian woman, Lu is tacit, with little to no lines in each episode. When she calls her family, her husband scolds their son for receiving a 98 instead of a 100 on a test.

Even more disappointing is the obvious villainization of Lu and Misha, the characters from China and Russia respectively, in the first episode, “Go.” Due to an incident on the spaceship, the two crew members become distrustful of Emma’s capabilities as a captain, and they briefly take on roles as seeming antagonists. Why portray these two characters in such a negative light? Why put these countries in opposition with America before Lu and Misha have even been developed as characters?

Finally, in an age of performative activism, the entire Atlas mission seems like a waste of resources. In episode one, a reporter says it best when she questions the crew, asking if the millions spent on Atlas could not be put to better use on Earth. In particular, the reporter suggests the funds could go toward education and health care instead. In what is supposed to be a resounding defense of Atlas, Emma responds, “In the U.S. alone, we spend a trillion dollars each year on the military, and mostly in case the countries represented here decide to blow each other off the face of the earth. This mission, it costs a fraction of that, as we work together, repurposing those same tools of destruction for discovery.” 

This broad, blanket answer does nothing to defend the importance of Atlas. It is hard to imagine a world where countries immediately stop pouring money into their defensive militaries simply because a mission to Mars has succeeded—particularly when the crew members themselves fail to get along. With Away, Netflix had the opportunity to usher in a new era of sci-fi. But with its tired stereotypes and preoccupation with a cookie cutter protagonist, it falls back on the same predictable tropes as its predecessors.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

September 14, 2020