A cloud of smoke hangs in the sky where the space shuttle Providence used to be. Incomprehension turns to realisation, as the parents of the astronauts begin to take in the awful truth: the first-ever manned mission to Mars has exploded in mid-air, killing everyone on board.
For all of us watching at home, Channel 4 drama The First has taken a very unexpected turn.
It’s a bold decision from screenwriter Beau Willimon, who introduces us to a crew of would-be main characters – and then spectacularly blows them up within the first episode. Clearly this drama about the first humans to visit Mars will not actually take us to Mars any time soon.
That sets things up for a very different kind of story. How will space entrepreneur and Vista founder Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) deal with the fallout? And what about Captain Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), the astronaut who was originally meant to lead the crew to Mars?
Asked why he had decided to kill the crew in episode one, House of Cards creator Beau Willimon tells RadioTimes.com: “Well, it was really important to establish the stakes of a mission like this from the get-go. It was really important for us to establish the stakes right away, and the stakes are life and death. If everything had gone off without a hitch from the get-go, I don’t think we would have felt really the amount of danger that’s involved in an endeavour like this.”
Astronaut’s wife Ellen Dawes and daughter Charlotte after the explosion (Channel 4)
That twist in episode one sets things up for the following seven episodes, as Laz refuses to give up on her ultimate ambition: putting humans on Mars for the first time in history.
“It also allowed us to see this [space] programme falter and the amount of work and sweat and heartache required to get back to the starting line,” Willimon explains.
“So by the time that we do see the launch of the second crew, which will ultimately end up being the first mission to Mars at the end of the season, we have an intimate sense of how hard it is just to get to the starting line. And we’re so invested in these characters that we really do care about them as we see them head off towards the Red Planet.”
At a screening in London, Willimon also told the audience: “The main focus of the first season is the story here on Earth. We wanted to delve deeply into the lives of not only the crew, but the people on the ground team, and also Laz’s character to really see what their own personal motivations were for wanting to embark on this journey and to see the real cost and sacrifice required to embark on it.”
He added: “A show could have got to Mars in the first episode and delivered on its Mars candy, but it wouldn’t have been telling the real story.
“And when you work with people at NASA or in the private sector who will sometimes devote a decade or a decade and a half of their life just to get a rover to Mars, it would be I think irresponsible if you were trying to approach this story with honesty not to really explore that side of it.”
The tragedy we see take place in episode one has loud echoes of the 1986 Challenger Disaster, when a NASA space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. That disaster was witnessed by millions, especially schoolchildren, as one of the passengers was Christa McAuliffe. She would have been the first teacher in space.
Spectators watch the Challenger Disaster in 1986 (Getty)
“That Challenger moment: tattooed in my mind is, I suppose, the image of something going up in smoke,” McElhone tells RadioTimes.com. “I didn’t really get to the point of: what were the rest of those families lives like after that? Or who were the people that were going to replace them?”
US writer Willimon adds, “I was in grade school watching it in my class, and I think what was so compelling for little kids was there was a teacher going up into space – and my teacher was standing right in front of me. The idea that a regular person could head up there; that it could have been my teacher.
“Also if you’re a kid, you don’t necessarily have a full conception of what death is yet, and a tragedy like that forces that upon you. So that certainly informed what we did in the first episode.”
The First will be about sacrifice and the ultimate cost of space travel – in more ways than one.
“Well there’s a huge difference between sending a Rover to Mars, or a satellite,” Willimon says. “The moment you introduce the human body, you introduce everything that comes with it – not just the oxygen and the food and the water that you need to get them there, but also the soul. The history, the psyche.
“And that’s attached to the people that you love, the people that care about you, and a selfless choice to be willing to risk your life that’s also a selfish choice which is to fulfil your own sense of destiny at the expense, at times, of causing pain and hurt to those around you.”
The First continues on Thursday 8th November at 9pm on Channel 4