One Strange Rock may qualify as one of the most ambitious documentary series ever brought to television. Its purpose, after all, is to tell nothing less than “the story of Earth.”
“It’s not a show just about animals. It’s not a show just about people,” executive producer Darren Aronofsky tells Deadline. “It’s a show about biology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, earth science, all kind of blended together to tell this one story about this place we call home.”
The 10-part program currently airing on the National Geographic Channel is competing for Emmy consideration in a variety of categories including Outstanding Informational Series. It was shot in 145 locations around the world, taking viewers below the ocean surface, into volcanoes and Arctic glaciers and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to reveal mysteries of the only known planet to harbor life.
“You sort of start figuring out, what are some of the really amazing places around the world that have incredible stories that haven’t been told?” Aronofsky explains of the thought process behind the series. “I think with my background in storytelling, that’s one of the things I was able to contribute, was to take all of the science and turn it into a journey, so that each of the 10 hours really has an emotional impact, and that all 10 together build to this one final kind of celebration of the Earth.”
A dream team assembled to pull off the project, featuring Aronofsky, former Discovery Networks president Jane Root, who runs production company Nutopia, and actor Will Smith, who serves as host. Here Smith—a devotee of science fiction as demonstrated in films like I, Robot and Men in Black—takes on the role of communicating science fact.
“We knew he would be a great force in the show, but we had no idea how much he totally connected to the subject in a way which was really from the heart,” Root observes. “He has that love and enthusiasm for everything he encounters.”
Adds Aronofsky, “I’ve worked with many movie stars, and he’s just so impressive. A complete gentleman, very easy to work with, very, very game. But very intelligent, and did exactly what we wanted him to do, which was, with all of this heavy science that’s going on, to make it more and more relatable to everyone.”
Smith pretended to venture into space for his 2013 film After Earth, but One Strange Rock’s dream team includes people who have actually seen the planet from far above: Former NASA astronauts. Stories and observations from more than half a dozen of these space explorers are woven throughout the series.
“They’re the people who have been outside the Earth and who understand how everything is connected together,” Root notes. “They not only had an enormous amount of scientific knowledge but they had what they call the ‘overview effect’ — when you’ve seen the Earth from space, you never quite look at it the same again.”
One Strange Rock is airing at a time when the administration in power has been attacked for denying or ignoring scientific truth. Referencing that, Aronofsky took a subtle swipe at President Trump.
“Some people live and die by their Twitter accounts, where basically science has created technology that allows you to communicate to millions of people instantly around the world,” he comments. “Science is kind of cherry-picked right now…There are just a lot of people, who because of political reasons, decide not to subscribe to it. And that’s unfortunate because science isn’t political. Science is a way of looking at the world and at our surroundings and collecting information and making observations, and through those observations we can understand reality. To not listen to science sort of paints a very, very bleak future, unless people do something about it.”
The acclaimed director’s interest in science is not a newfound passion.
“My dad was a science teacher and I was trained as a field biologist, and my [production] company is called Protozoa, so we’re interested in that type of stuff,” he affirms.
Some observers of his most recent fictional film, the Jennifer Lawrence-starrer Mother!, saw it as a parable about Mother Earth.
“It’s interesting One Strange Rock and Mother! come out within a span of a year of each other,” Aronofsky says. “But whereas Mother! was a cautionary tale, this is more of a celebration. And so they’re definitely both projects thinking about Mother Earth and our place on Mother Earth, and for me, with my science background and environmental background, it’s the issue that I spend most of my time thinking about, focusing on, and just trying to help wherever I can.”
Root acknowledges the show’s title One Strange Rock is a wink at an earlier sitcom—NBC’s 3rd Rock from the Sun.
“When we first started talking about the series, calling it a rock rather than a planet had a relaxed-ness about it which was exciting,” she recalls.
With so much ground to cover—not to mention sea and air—the subject matter would seem to warrant more than a single season of the show.
Root says it’s too early to speculate on the possibility of future seasons. For now she’s concentrating on Season 1, and basking in what she describes as a very positive reception.
“It’s been amazing. Just really phenomenal. People are watching it all over the place, across the world,” she tells Deadline. “Audiences have responded really well, and it’s really gratifying…It’s not your normal piece of television.”