Drama on National Geographic Channel will go out of this world with the launch of Mars later this year. As DQ’s Digital Drama Season concludes, National Geographic Channel’s Andy Baker discusses the show’s online drama spin-off Before Mars.
While television networks are embracing the internet as a place for viewers to catch up on single episodes or whole seasons of a particular show, there are few examples where they have launched a series entirely online.
Following its move online, former terrestrial channel BBC3 launched psychological drama Thirteen across the digital airwaves, while NBC dropped every episode of the first season of Aquarius online following its network debut.
Until now, broadcasters have largely used the digital space as a way to extend their programmes online, either through bonus footage or mini-episodes, otherwise known as webisodes.
One example is Flight 462, a 16-part miniseries that aired on AMC.com ahead of the second season of Fear The Walking Dead, focusing on a group of survivors onboard a plane in the earliest moments of the outbreak.
In 2013, the BBC also dropped a mini-episode of its hit drama Sherlock, while sci-fi favourites Doctor Who and Heroes have also extended their stories online. The latter launched five batches of webisodes between 2008 and 2009.
National Geographic Channel is now using the same tactics for its groundbreaking drama Mars. Set in both the future and the present day, the six-part series will use a blend of drama and documentary sequences to imagine the first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033.
But ahead of its debut this November, when it will air in 171 countries and 45 languages, Nat Geo has also produced its first ever web series that will serve as an online prequel to the main event.
Set in the present day, Before Mars introduces twin sisters Joon and Hana Seung – central characters in Mars – as young girls struggling to fit into their new school in a small rural town. Joon discovers an old ham radio in the attic and eventually develops a long-distance radio friendship with a female astronaut who has grown homesick while serving on the International Space Station. While the friendship between Joon and the astronaut grows stronger, Hana begins to thrive at school and makes her own friends on Earth.
Before Mars is produced by Variable, with executive producer Tyler Ginter and director Lloyd Lee Choi. Mars comes from Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia, with executive producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg, Jon Kamen and Robert Palumbo.
“The way content is consumed now, it’s not just linear TV,” says Andy Baker, senior VP and group creative director of National Geographic Channels. “Things are online, whether it’s YouTube, Amazon or Hulu. We wanted to create something to support that show that they can watch on different devices.
“Very early on, as we started to look at stories and plots for Before Mars, we found we had these two characters in Mars, which is set in 2033. But what motivated them to become these pioneers that would land on Mars [back in] 2016 when they are young teenagers? What inspired them and motivated them to take this giant leap for mankind?”
Baker reveals the creative team read through dozens of potential scripts and storylines for Before Mars. “It was pretty wide open,” he says. “The characters are shown 15 to 20 years earlier than the main story. It starts with Hana on the launch pad. She’s looking back at this one moment in her life so we wanted to make something that lived up to that. There’s a lot of opportunity and options. We wanted to tell a story people enjoy and has a bit of nostalgia to it. We just wanted to write something that feels compelling, interesting, relatable and emotional for the audience.”
With Joon and Hana set as the focal point of Before Mars, the writers were tasked with coming up with a backstory for them that would become an origin story for their relationship in Mars.
“We wanted to create a fairly simple story,” Baker explains. “We’re making a shortform digital series, so we wanted to tell one moment in time from their youth. But you don’t need to watch Mars to appreciate Before Mars. It’s just a shorter piece of content around that same subject.
“In the series, Hana goes to Mars and Joon stays behind. That same theme is in the prequel when one sister goes on a big adventure while the other stays behind, so their personalities become clear.”
Like Mars, Before Mars also comprises six parts, though the running time for the web series is still to be determined ahead of its October launch.
“As we got into the story, the running time got a little bit longer,” Baker admits. “It will total 40 to 45 minutes and each episode will be six to nine minutes. One of the best things about creating a digital series is that running time takes a back seat. You don’t have to cut it a certain way. Longer or shorter is OK as long as it’s compelling storytelling.”
Baker says the look and tone of Before Mars will differ from the main series, simply because one is set on Earth in the present day and the other is in the future on another planet. However, scripts from Mars were used to inform the prequel and ensure the character’s featured remained consistent throughout.
Ultimately, though, whether on terrestrial TV or online, he says the success of any project comes down to the story. “There’s such a proliferation of great content that the single most important focus is to tell a great story, whatever length that might be or wherever the show is consumed,” Baker notes.
National Geographic is pushing further into TV drama next year with Genius, an anthology series that will feature the story of Albert Einstein in season one. Before then, however, viewers will get to journey to Mars in what Baker describes as “the biggest series ever that we have launched.”
He adds: “We’re excited and hope everyone enjoys the story. We’re in the middle of the rough cuts but we’re really excited by where it’s going.”