“Missions”: a bet won for European science fiction
Lately I’m quite interested in European productions for what concerns TV series, so when last autumn I found out that Rai 4 broadcast a French science fiction series set on Mars, I immediately threw myself at it. I admit that I didn’t have very high expectations, since it was evident that it was a production with a limited budget, and instead, I had to change my mind.
“Missions” (whose title can be pronounced in both French and English) is a French series created by Ami Cohen, Henri Debeurme and Julien Lacombe and produced by Empreinte Digitale in 2017. So far it includes two seasons, but a third has already been commissioned and is in the pre-production phase. Each season consists of 10 episodes of approximately 20 minutes each.
The cast, mostly French, also includes the Italian actress Giorga Sinicorni, in the role of Alessandra Najac, which is one of the most controversial and therefore most interesting characters in the series. Omar Serafini and I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently on FantascientifiCast (in Italian).
The series follows the ESA mission Ulysses 1, the first manned Mars mission. While the spacecraft is arriving at the red planet, the crew is informed that a NASA mission, Zillion 1, in which nuclear propulsion was used, arrived earlier, but there is no more news from the astronauts, therefore Ulysses 1 has become a rescue mission. In the meantime, a third mission is coming, Zillion 2.
A particular aspect is that both missions are financed by private individuals. That of ESA by William Meyer (Swiss billionaire), who is also part of the crew. That of NASA by Ivan Goldstein (American billionaire) and is carried out by his company called, in fact, Zillion.
I couldn’t help but see in these two characters a sort of “good” and “bad” side of contemporary public figures in the private aerospace sector. Meyer’s character, in particular, with the desire to go personally to the Red Planet immediately reminded me of Elon Musk.
The series also opens on the story of the Russian cosmonaut Vladamir Komarov, who died during the Soyuz 1 mission in 1967. It’s an original choice, which allows the public to know more about this late space hero.
I can’t say too much about the plot, which is characterised by continuous twists developed throughout the serialisation. In each 20-minute episode, the plot goes on seemingly slowly, then accelerates towards the end and leaves us with a twist.
Fortunately, three episodes were broadcast by Rai 4 in the same day (then made available on Rai Play)!
The story includes a set of elements already seen in Mars and non-Mars science fiction, but the peculiarity lies in the way they are mixed.
Among the original aspects there is the character of Komarov, or rather of something that seems him, which has an important role within the plot. And in this regard, a series of flashbacks allow us to know more about the real Komarov, even if he turns out to be marginal in the story. However, it’s interesting and adds a European touch to the narrative.
The whole series is full of flashbacks, which provide information on the characters. In the second season, in particular, they serve to explain what happened in the past five years after the end of the first.
This alternation of different timelines allows you to discover the story little by little, providing unexpected twists.
It’s a narrative choice that I particularly love, since it is able to surprise the viewer (or the reader), showing them certain information only when it can obtain the maximum effect.
The first season cost 1.5 million euros and was shot in just 27 days. And despite this, the result is truly commendable. But it’s in the second that, against a budget increase of up to 2 million (therefore certainly not stellar), we observe the opening of the story to new possibilities, which are accompanied by more vivid visual effects and the use of a greater number of settings, which make it even more realistic.
There is a strongly mystical element in the story, although a scientific touch is given to it, or an attempt is made. Here I have found disturbing similarities with “Red Desert”, although more in form than in substance. There are connected minds, a biological element, artificial intelligence that rebels, a protagonist who secretly comes out of a Martian base and then gets hurt (and then is saved), people who suddenly die in accidents or in mysterious circumstances, people who lose it and kill, affairs among the character. But there’s also something else that has nothing to do with my Martian series, for example, portals that remind me of Stargate and other supertechnologies of unknown origin (at least so far).
Despite the small budget, the visual quality is very good. There are some simplifications, both scientific and with regard to some technical aspects (such as the space suits, which are obviously not pressurised), but this does not negatively affect the result, since we are totally taken by the events occurring to the characters, that the details have very little importance. The direction, photography and editing are very well done, and the never cumbersome music underlines the story effectively. The whole is characterised by a certain sense of reality. One has the impression of dealing with a very near real future.
I’ve read, on social networks and in articles on other blogs and magazines, some negative opinions on dialogues, but I don’t agree. We are too accustomed to Anglophone products and this is, instead, a French product. And you can also see it in the dialogues. Indeed, the excellent work of adaptation and dubbing, at least in my language (Italian), manages to blur any “theatrical” excesses and also makes this aspect suitable for everything else.
Maybe Giorgia Sinicorni’s self-dubbing (in Italian) tends to stand out a bit in the set of voices, but it’s something inevitable, since she isn’t a voice actress and at the same time the Italian voice actors are so good that they would make anyone make a bad impression. In any case, this small detail tends to disappear in the second season, partly because there has certainly been an improvement in Sinicorni’s voice performance and partly because we have got used to her voice, thanks also to the fact that the character has a larger role in the story. And, let’s face it, being the only Italian character in the series, it makes sense that she “sounds” different from the others.
However, to appreciate the performance of Sinicorni, I recommend watching her show reel, in which there are two clips of scenes from this series: one in French and one in English.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to watch again the two seasons in the original language, as soon as Rai Play will make them available again (in Italy), which will surely happen with the release of the third. In the meantime, the French version of the first season is available on DVD and Blu-ray on Amazon.
However, you can watch the trailer here.
Although that of “Missions” is a story in which the aspect that goes beyond science has a role of some importance, I found myself comparing it to the drama portion of the docudrama “Mars” by National Geographic. The direction it takes is completely different, because there are different purposes, but concerning general quality, making the due proportions of budget, I believe that “Missions” has nothing to envy to the American series.
Also, I think it looks a lot like (and maybe has been influenced by) “Defying Gravity”, an American series from 2009, cancelled after the first season, in which the same elements are mixed (relationships between the characters, a mystery that goes beyond science, space exploration in the near future) and the same techniques (flashbacks), but obviously with a different budget. I admit, too, that I was inspired by it when I conceived the plot of “Red Desert”. It’s in a certain sense the same type of science fiction, which, starting from distinctly hard elements, mixes them with something softer, not well defined, capable of stimulating the spectator’s imagination.
In conclusion, I really appreciated the imaginative effort of this series, supported by an excellent script, with a fast pace and capable of continuously giving rise to new questions. If I’d had both seasons available since the beginning, I would have seen them in two or three days, so much was my curiosity at the end of each episode.
In any case, all this, together with a good cast and a very well-finished visual component, in my opinion, makes “Missions” a bet won in the context of European science fiction.
Originally published at https://ladyanakina.blogspot.com on 2 July 2020.