When eccentric Dutch billionaire entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp unveiled his plan to put together a group that would be trained and sent on a one-way trip to Mars to establish the first human colony, it was hailed as a concept for the ultimate reality series. That has now become a reality. In a competitive situation, Lionsgate TV has teamed with Lansdorp’s Mars One for an unscripted TV series that will chronicle the mission. The untitled project, in the red-hot social experiment genre, will be shopped to networks shortly.
Mars One calls for new groups of four to be sent to Mars every two years, beginning no later than 2024. Announced last year, the scientific project already has received almost 300,000 applications from all all over the world, which are being whittled down. Lionsgate TV is expected to start its own casting search, with the two selection processes ultimately merged.
For the next several years, the series would be covering the different stages of preparation for the mission, starting with participant selection and the finalists — called candidates — undergoing an 8-year training protocol. The series’ cast will evolve as candidates in the mission drop out and new ones are brought in. “This is a social experiment that focuses on the people that would sign for something like this — they have to agree to participate and be willing to go on a one-way mission, knowing that if you go, you can never come back,” said Roy Bank, who is producing the project as part of his overall deal with Lionsgate TV.
The participant search is complex because the mission would require a lot more than astronaut skills. “They’re colonizing Mars and starting a new society, so this group needs to possess a wide variety of skills — from medical to engineering to social as they are going to live with each other.” The last part will be tested with the candidates on Earth as they are sequestered in a Biosphere-type isolated environment for an extended period of time to find the right mix. Adding another layer to the dynamic within the group is male-female interaction. “They will serve as a microcosm of a larger society, so it is not only about how they get along but also how they procreate; they have to create new life so the society grows,” Bank said. He called the show “a true social experiment.” Most series in the so-called social experiment genre — like Survivor, on which Bank worked, and Big Brother — are a mix of a social experiment and a game show, with contestants moved away from society for a limited period of time and competing for a cash prize. In Mars One, “the commitment is so much greater and much longer than TV season(s) would last; even before they would ever be put on a rocket, they need to be willing go for a longer period of time if not forever. Nobody knows if they will pull it off.” The last part leads us to one of the most controversial aspects of Mars One: “What makes it such fascinating social experiment the ethics of it,” Bank said. “Would a show like this be involved in promoting a suicide mission?”
The social experiment genre cannot be hotter at the moment, with the networks betting on it being the next big thing in reality TV. Fox recently committed to Utopia, based on the Dutch format, about a group of people building a society from scratch in a remote location, which will air as a weekly series. The Netherlands, where the Mars One space project is from, is considered the hotbed of social experiment TV, with Big Brother and Utopia among the formats originated there. As for space travel, which long had been considered reality TV’s last frontier, NBC recently picked up Space Race, from Survivor producer Mark Burnett and British mogul Richard Branson, that would have contestants competing for a spot on Branson’s planned commercial spaceline.
Patrick Hughes, who represented Mars One through his company Intellectual Artists Management, met with U.S. production companies, with several making offers on the format. I hear Lionsgate TV went after the project drawn to the boldness of the idea as the company is looking to replicate the big-swing approach it has employed on the feature side with films like The Hunger Games. The format of the Mars One series is flexible, with daily, weekly and even monthly installments a possibility, depending on a network’s needs. While the initial focus will be on the preparation stage, there is also intention to film the actual mission. Bank will produce through his Banca Studio alongside Hughes.
The scientific foundation of the premise of establishing sustainable human colonies on Mars has drawn mixed reaction from enthusiastic support to skepticism. There is time for scientists to work on that part but regardless of the final outcome — whether the trip to Mars ultimately happens or not — the producers of the TV series are betting on the high-stakes journey to get there.
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