The First review, Channel 4: Sean Penn’s star power prevents this space drama from taking off

There is no doubting the ambition of Beau Willimon's new drama on Channel 4, but it needs to draw more on its ensemble cast

Ed Cumming
Thursday 01 November 2018 23:00
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Natascha McElhone, Sean Penn and Oded Fehr
Natascha McElhone, Sean Penn and Oded Fehr

Journeys to alien worlds are in the air at Channel 4. Their Hackney-dwelling executives got a Halloween fright yesterday when it was announced that their new headquarters will be in Leeds, the spooky North. Now we have The First, a new eight-part drama set in the nearest of futures, co-produced with the American streaming site Hulu.

Quite aside from First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic in cinemas, this is not even the first recent production about the first manned mission to Mars. Missions, a French series that aired on BBC 4 earlier this year, covered similar space. You can see why the topic is promising. The length of the trip, at least six months each way, lends itself to intrigue and reflection among the crew. The risk, scope, and economic and political ramifications back on Earth give it scale. Its creator is Beau Willimon, who was previously showrunner on House of Cards, and so has previous for putting gritty problems into grand settings.

There is no doubting the ambition. The first episode begins with an enormous rocket, Providence, on the launchpad. A clue as to the fate of this vessel is provided by the absence of the show’s star, Sean Penn. An old lesson: never get into a vehicle in the first episode of something if the leading man isn’t onboard. His gruff-but-compassionate astronaut, Tom Hegarty, has been left out of the crew for obscure reasons. Say what you like about not being on an exploding rocket, but it keeps you grounded. Penn has recently been on his own journey to a new world, writing fiction. The reviews of his debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, would make any aspiring author light out for deep space (...“repellant and stupid on so many levels” – the Guardian).

Hagerty has terrestrial problems aplenty: a drug-addicted daughter, an absent ex, a faithful hound. With his usual skill of hinting at great wells of rage and empathy, Penn lifts Hegarty above these clichés. He is in fighting shape, perhaps after months of using punch-bags with the faces of literary critics stuck on, and looks like he is on the hunt for a scrap. But his star power still distracts from the rest of the cast.

Key among this is Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), an English tycoon whose company won the government contract for the mission to Mars. We would say she is based on Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, except that her personal actions show her to be compassionate and reasonable. Still, it’s lonely at the top. In one of the more memorable scenes of the opening episode, she asks her car to run her over. It refuses. Her technology protects her, just as it fails to protect her employees.

I hope we hear more from her, and the promising ensemble, over the next episodes. I also hope they turn down the music, which is in the Big Ideas and Emotions mould – the Zimmer frame, perhaps? – but trying far too hard.

The First’s subject is as hoary as Horace: those who cross the ocean change their sky but not their soul. These ancient stories depend on great characters, which the first episode didn't fully deliver. If the show’s journey is to work, we’ll need to make some friends along the way.

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