By Sara Netzley
May 02, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Robert Falconer/CBS
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What’s more dangerous: despair or hope? For the voyagers of the starship Bradbury, neither is a great option.

In an unspecified yet recognizable future, Earth is on the brink of environmental and political catastrophe, so we’re headed to colonize the stars. The five-member crew of the Bradbury Heavy Mission to Mars endured a competitive selection process and four years of training to be the first humans on the red planet. We have flight commander Alexa Brandt (DeWanda Wise), pilot Casey Donlin (Jonathan Whitesell), engineer Rei Tanaka (Jessica Williams), surgeon Katherine Langford (Lucinda Dryzek), and mission specialist Jerry Pierson (Jefferson White), along with the ship’s AI, TINA.

We meet them when they’re strapped in and waiting for the launch countdown, scared, excited, and giddily singing along to “Family” by The Interrupters, when the distant blaring of an alarm alerts them to a problem.

A flurry of jumbled communication tells them that North Korea has launched long-range nukes, with one missile expected to strike the launch pad in mere minutes. The crew is faced with a snap decision: evacuate the vessel or launch immediately to get out of harm’s way.

Over Tanaka’s objection, Brandt calls for liftoff, silent tears coursing down her cheeks, and the Narrator appears to warn us that we’re about to glimpse either individual madness or a shared nightmare. Yes! Bring on the space madness!

As the ship drifts above the Earth, the crew listens to distress broadcasts in a variety of languages. L.A., Seattle, D.C., New York, and Chicago have been hit, and the U.S. fired retaliatory nukes at Russia and North Korea. Alas, the porthole cover that will protect them from the lethal radiation levels of space also prevents them from being able to see the damage.

Now they’re faced with another decision. Should they try to reenter Earth, likely dying during the landing? Should they pop the porthole and orbit their possibly dying planet until they die of starvation? Or should they complete their mission to Mars, which now seems to be a one-way trip?

As they debate, Pierson brings up the concept of the Great Filter, which theorizes that life in the universe is rare: hard to start and harder to continue. The final test of an advanced intelligence is whether it can make it to another planet before it destroys itself. Most fail, which is why humans have never encountered any other beings in the universe.

Humans are on the brink, Pierson says, and this is the mission designed to give humanity a future. So in the spirit of the family they’ve become and to inspire hope among any humans who may have survived on Earth, the crew point the shuttle toward Mars. They began this journey knowing if something happened to them, their family would be left wondering. Now, they’re the ones wondering about their families as they begin their long trip.

211 days to arrival: Brandt blocks all calls to Earth because all the numbers ring and ring with no one there to answer, and it’s crushing morale, especially Tanaka’s.

189 days to arrival: Pierson catches a glimpse of a humanoid figure in a display screen.

188 days to arrival: The dinner table is tense as Pierson over-explains The War of the Worlds and complains about the food, while Donlin just wants somebody to pass the broccoli. When the lights flicker out momentarily, the crew is reminded that TINA isn’t getting her mandated every-thirty-day update from mission control.

155 days to arrival: Despite her prohibition about phoning home, Brandt (decked out in a sleep bonnet!) slips out of bed and places her own call, listening to it ring until a voicemail tells her that the mailbox she shared with her partner, Natalie, is full.

Then a noise distracts her, and she finds Tanaka and Donlin fogging up windows with their sexploits. Brandt reads them the riot act, reminding them that pregnancy and birth on their strict rations would be devastating. Tanaka leaves the encounter angrier than ever.

134 days to arrival: A sympathetic Langford asks Brandt to describe the nightmare that’s making it hard for her to sleep. Brandt replies that she dreams about Natalie and her parents; the nightmare is waking up on the ship.

Langford, whose husband divorced her when she decided to join the mission, reminds Brandt that she’s the mother figure for their little family, but Brandt says that role belongs to Langford. “I’m commander of nothing but a slow suicide.”

115 days to arrival: Never forget that hope can be cruel. Tanaka breaks protocol by trying to reach Earth, and they’re all momentarily elated to hear another human voice burst through the static. But it turns out to be an old Munsters TV broadcast that’s been bouncing through space for decades.

Meanwhile, Pierson isn’t doing well. He looks at himself in the mirror, looks away, looks back. (Was I the only one braced for an “it appears in the mirror!” jump scare?) Then he reaches his bare hand into the toilet and runs his finger along the rim, making a notation in his increasingly full and disturbing notebook.

76 days to arrival: Under Langford’s direction, the crew scavenged the materials for a makeshift cake and candles to celebrate Brandt’s birthday, singing happy birthday and then sharing a moment of joy with a group dance party to “California Dreaming.” It’s the nicest moment we’ve seen them have onboard until Langford breaks down in tears over the pressure of being the team’s mom.

And then Pierson’s there to make things so much worse by giving them all a gift: He’s been collecting data and has determined that none of this is real. It’s just a test of their endurance for the real mission, which means everyone on Earth is fine.

As his shipmates listen in alarm to his rambling, TINA alerts them about an incoming solar flare that will fatally fry the ship and its inhabitants. Langford tries to talk Pierson down as the rest of the crew race to turn the ship’s solar shield around so it will block the incoming flare and save everyone’s life.

As the temperature climbs and the ship’s electrical systems spark and catch fire, Pierson begs them to believe that they’re in a six-degrees-of-freedom simulator, offering as proof the lack of crystallization around the toilet gasket. “They’re watching us!” he cries.

While the rest of the crew turn the ship toward safety, Pierson takes a final leap of faith, opening the airlock that’s now facing the solar flare. He’s confident he won’t meet an excruciating death and will find his friends and family waiting for him on the other side. When the door opens, the light blinds him.

In a hopeless situation, hope can be deadly.

67 days to arrival: The four remaining crew members grimly clean their living space after the flare briefly knocked out the gravity. Langford, sporting a neck rash that I pray isn’t radiation, emerges from the bathroom with crystallization from the toilet gasket on her finger. Still, Tanaka wonders if Pierson was right, and Donlin calls out, “Knock twice if you’re over there.”

But Langford says that, like so many explorers before him, Pierson died after he lost his sense of home, and she cautions them not to romanticize him. “We may not have a home, but we have each other.” TINA cues up the “Family” again, but it’s much less joyful this time.

Arrival day: The quartet suit up and strap in for a rocky descent. Brandt asks the question on everyone’s minds: “Did we land on Mars?” They open the command module porthole to reveal their final resting place: craggy mountains and valleys in the middle of a strange landscape. They made it through the Great Filter.

But Pierson was right, too; they were being watched. We read subtitled alien speech as an unseen being reviews the Bradbury’s data and announces that the humans exceeded their expectations and succeeded where most life forms do not. They’re especially impressed with the observant Pierson, whom they rescued from the solar flare and popped into some kind of goo bath.

As Pierson wakes up, the alien says that although it took the near-destruction of their planet to do it, the crew of the Bradbury remained strong and curious. “They are worthy of salvation,” the alien voice concludes. “Prepare to make contact.”

In the end, their hope was rewarded, which isn’t always the case when you’re traveling through the… well, you know.

The Zone zone

  • What an exquisitely tense episode, from top to bottom, with a fresh take on the mission-to-Mars story and stellar performances throughout. I’d let DeWanda Wise lead me on a mission to anywhere she wants to take me.
  • Did you catch a few of the previous episode Easter eggs? We’ve got Whipple, the cable news channel Raff Hanks favored, emblazoned on the space suits, and a Northern GoldStar toy plane.
  • Six episodes in, and I’m delighted by the mix of genres, acting talent, and twisty storytelling. How about you? Are you clicking with this Twilight Zone reimagining as we head into the back half of the episodes?

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