Why Away should be your next box set
Ivan | On 06, Sep 2020
Space, once a final frontier, is now commonplace on our TV screens, from Lost in Space and Avenue 5 to Another Life and Nightflyers. Away, Netflix’s latest sci-fi outing, succeeds not by trying to break new frontiers but by setting a course for something reassuringly old-fashioned. Like Disney+’s upcoming The Right Stuff, or Apple TV+’s For All Mankind, this drama about a mission to Mars is rooted in old-school notions of teamwork, brains and other such noble values – closer to The Martian than Gravity.
Hilary Swank stars as Emma, the commander of a mission to take humankind to our nearby red cousin. She is joined by a chemist, Lu (Vivian Wu), Russian veteran Misha (Mark Ivanir), botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) and her co-pilot, Ram (Ray Panthaki). They’re a motley crew, with their own individual differences, ideals and experiences – in the case of Misha, many years of being an engineer and astronaut, while Ram has no time out of the Earth’s orbit at all.
The show cuts to the chase within the opening episode, setting up the ensemble and immediately throwing them into disarray and disagreement – talk of mutiny begins almost minutes after take-off. Less than an hour later, and an on-board malfunction pushes Emma and Misha to step outside to repair a solar panel – a crisis that drives them towards newfound respect for one another, and serves up some stunning visuals in the process. Over the ensuing hours, everything from illness and body horror strikes, teasing out the tensions within the confined conditions.
All of this is juxtaposed with personal drama unfolding on Earth, as Emma’s husband, Matt (Josh Charles), finds himself fighting his medical condition – and Emma’s daughter, Lex (Talitha Bateman), struggles to deal with it all without her mum providing in-person support. Soon enough, Emma is chatting to her boss about whether she’s fit to lead the mission or not, torn between commanding loyalty from her crew and wanting to be back home helping her family.
The result gives Hilary Swank a decent inner conflict to grapple with, but the script doesn’t deal with such nuances with any great subtlety. “It’s difficult enough by a mum, a wife and leading this crew,” she says at one point. The result threatens to drag down the drama every time it takes another big step forward.
But the cast, including Swank, are all top-flight, with Charles and Bateman stopping the Earthbound storyline descending into soap operatics, while Ivanir steals every scene as the wonderful Misha, who has his own family ties pulling his emotional strings. With an episodic structure that cycles through each crew member and their back-stories, there’s also a welcome chance for Vivian Wu to shine as we see Yu doing karaoke several years ago in a very moving subplot.
The result is an occasionally shaky flight, but one that launches right for your heart, and that old-school earnestness is a winning quality that promises to keep Away on course. Sometimes, the old frontiers are the best.
Away is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.