Now on Hulu: “The First” Inaugural Episode Takes Off with Sean Penn at the Helm

Science and engineering aren't the only barriers to the allure of space travel -- in The First, family drama also impedes the inaugural exploration of Mars.

The mystery of The First isn’t simply what awaits humanity beyond our species’ cradle — “Separation”, the first episode reveals that there is plenty to be explored right here on Earth.

For a nation that hasn’t set foot on an interstellar body other than the moon in almost 50 years, Americans sure are obsessed with reaching Mars. The First is the first television show to do what movies like The Martian, The Space Between Us, and The Last Days on Mars have done: exploring the possibility of what early missions to and from the red planet would look like. The First, at first, does not do this. Instead, the show’s maiden episode depicts a disaster, and the consequences for those involved. The First questions the responsibility of its characters to the people around them — their own families, the families of others, and the human race at large, through the eyes of two central characters, Captain Tom Hagerty and Laz Ingram.

Captain Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) awakens to plumbing problems in his familiar though still slightly futuristic home — instead of using the remote to turn on the television, he says “television screen, on”. Subtle behavioral cues like this let the audience know we are in the not-so-distant future. Smart, integrated televisions that respond to voice commands do exist today, though many in Hagerty’s generation eschew finicky voice commands in favor of their trusty remote control. Seeing a middle-aged man interact with technology like this casually is an easy way to indicate a futuristic time period without broadcasting it with a date on a title card. Less subtle expository tools include the news broadcast Tom turns on, explaining the details of an upcoming Mars mission, the crew of which will spend a year and a half on Mars doing research before returning home.

Epic, anthemic music underscores the crew boarding their vessel, and NASA officials taking their seats to watch the launch. These astronauts are leaving behind their families, seen waving hopefully from the viewing platform miles away, to fulfill a responsibility to humanity — to explore space. Tom calls in, requesting time with the crew that he isn’t going with. He’s near tears talking with his colleagues, who ask him for words of advice. They have a rapport that indicates they’re close, all the crew members looking emotional after their thirty second chat. It’s clear that Tom wishes he were with them, as he intently watches the commencement of the launch. Tom feels a responsibility to this crew, a group that he is demonstrably an important part of. The tension is palpable inside and outside the shuttle. The countdown begins, and the shuttle takes off with a fiery thrust into the sky.

Disaster strikes. Mere moments into the sky, two unplanned explosions destroy the ship, Prospect One, into a puff of black smoke. There’s panic in the crowd and Tom races to the base to shut down a planned celebration the balloons and champagne now deeply inappropriate for the somber occasion. Five astronauts have died due to shuttle failure. Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) gives a brief, somewhat conciliatory speech to the staff before she begins the work of diagnosing what went wrong. Her engineers are baffled as to what caused the deadly explosion. Meanwhile in the hall that should have held a celebration, grieving families meander between tearful embraces, under the huge smiling portraits of the recently deceased team of would be space travelers. Laz is conspicuously absent.

So Hagerty goes to find her, and ask her to speak to the families, begging her to show some emotion, some empathy. She refuses, and he calls her a coward. What’s frustrating about this interaction is that Laz clearly does feel the weight of what has happened today. While not openly weeping, many quiet moments and stuttering attempts to console those around her reveal the depths of her guilt. One of the parents of a lost scientist even accuses her of conspiracy, demanding “how much did you make?” of her, and “what did you lose?” As Laz returns to an elegant, expensive looking home, workers begin to piece together the wreckage to try and assess what went so disastrously wrong. Laz, overcome by the weight of disappointing not only the grieving members of five families, but the expectations of a world watching the launch, commands her self-driving car to hit her, but it’s safety mechanisms stop it before it reaches her.

Hagerty’s daughter arrives, high and disheveled, her nail beds destroyed from a habit of picking. She throws up in the sink, and he puts her to bed. He shaves off his facial hair and stares up at the night sky. The next morning, Laz arrives to continue the investigation, and Hagerty starts the day with a run with his dog. Light flares, epic music, and poetic musings on the closeness of the final frontier leave the first episode on a hopeful note. Perhaps without a crew to look after, now Tom will have the time to devote to his biological family. He’s switching out parenting a crew preparing for an interstellar journey for a daughter battling her own inner journey with addiction.

Is The First a show about space travel, grief, conspiracy? While some of its themes are clear — the unquenchable desire and responsibility to explore space and the vast possibility of what waits beyond our home juxtaposed with the responsibilities of our home — where the show will go next is murky. One could see the series easily centralizing around the investigation of what went wrong with the launch, or on the preparations for another.

“Separation” was created and written by Beau Willimon and directed by Agnieszka Holland.

Photos and video credit courtesy of Hulu.

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