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Away review: The best sci-fi of 2020 is barely fiction

Hilary Swank soars in this grounded space travel drama.

Halfway through its eight-episode season, Away made me cry. To be fair, the new Netflix series used a secret cheat code: It ended a particularly emotional episode of the always-emotional space drama with the Joni Mitchell classic, "River." This song could make even the most unflappable astronaut shed a few tears, but in that moment, Away cements its status as the best, saddest, and most uplifting sci-fi show of 2020.

Calling Away science fiction isn't exactly fair. Set in either our very near future or an alternate present where the government is still capable of accomplishing great things, the show follows the first manned mission to Mars, a three-year journey carried out by a small international team and led by American astronaut Emma Green (Hilary Swank). While the crew deals with a seemingly endless series of deadly ship malfunctions and other unpredictable issues, Emma's husband, Matt (Josh Charles), and teenage daughter encounter their own problems at home.

Created by Andrew Hinderaker (a playwright whose work you might remember from episodes of Penny Dreadful) with Jessica Goldberg (Hulu's The Path) as showrunner, Away takes a 2014 GQ article by Chris Jones about what was then the "longest mission in space history," extrapolates it onto a trip to Mars, and combines it with a gripping family drama just as enthralling as space travel.

Hillary Swank, Josh Charles, and Talitha Bateman in 'Away'.Netflix

"This is the first real working mother story I've ever seen," Goldberg tells Inverse. "I was just so blown away to see a female character who loves to work, loves their family."

The showrunner and single mother sees a reflection of her own decision to take on this demanding project in Emma's choice to temporarily leave her family behind and lead a trip across the solar system. "It's nothing compared to going to Mars," Goldberg says, "but you’re in NY, you’re in Canada, you're missing a lost tooth or these little moments. It’s complicated, and this is it to the ninth degree, obviously, in Emma’s case."

The partially fractured family of Emma, Matt, and their daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman) is the emotional core of Away. Josh Charles plays both a devoted husband/father who's also an ambitious astronaut sidelined by a dramatic injury. Alexis steps up when her family needs her but also acts out as any confused and angry high schooler might. Emma tries to help from millions of miles away, but the greater that distance grows, the more difficult it becomes.

The rest of the cast does plenty of heavy lifting, too, and deserves just as much praise. Emma's crew is full of eclectic, memorable characters. Ato Essandoh plays Kwesi, an African botanist and adopted Jew tasked with growing plants on Mars. Vivian Wu is Lu, a Chinese astronaut forced to hide a personal secret from her government and her husband. But the clear standout is Mark Ivanir as Misha, an overly confident Russian cosmonaut who brews his own vodka in space. Each crewmember's backstory is explored in flashbacks, with each episode highlighting a different character. But as the season goes on, it's their ensemble work that carries the show, whether they're working together to fix a broken filtration system or putting on a puppet show in zero gravity for Misha's grandchildren over video chat.

The crew.Netflix

For all its drama, Away is grounded in reality. With Chris Jones' article as a starting point, the team did additional research into the realities of space travel. When something on the ship breaks or fails to work, that's a real problem astronauts encounter, and the solutions are real too. And when one character begins to lose their eyesight as a result of too much time in zero gravity, that's realistic, too, even if it's played expertly to both heighten the drama and peel back the layers of the show's characters.

"Everything's grounded in what could really go wrong," Goldberg says. "Water filtration systems do break down a lot."

Mission control.Netflix

Despite its uplifting message of human achievement and global cooperation — equal parts necessary and out of place in the year 2020 — Away gets one thing right about our current situation: video chat. When the voyage to Mars first begins, Emma and the rest of the crew can communicate with friends, family, and mission control in real-time. As a result, we're treated to many awkward conversations where ever nobody manages to make eye contact. This should feel familiar to anyone who's used Zoom in the past six months.

Goldberg also says she was heavily inspired by the space disaster classic film Apollo 13, based on the actual failed lunar mission of the same name in which NASA's crew barely made it home alive. Both that movie and Away spend as much time on Earth as they do in space, with mission control doing everything in their power to keep the astronauts alive

"I like that old-fashioned story of, let’s figure it out at home and send it up there," Goldberg says. "It's so fun to me, the puzzle."

Away takes this familiar setup and twists it into something new. As the spaceship moves further from space, the amount of time it takes to send a message to Earth and back expands dramatically. Without a direct line to mission control, Emma and her crew are often forced to improvise when they can't afford to wait an hour to find out what "ground" wants them to do. It's a clever (and realistic) plot device that heightens the tension as Away closes in on its final moments.

I won't spoil how it all ends, but I will say that anyone who watches Away should come away deeply satisfied and instantly ready for more. Thankfully, Goldberg tells me she already has some intriguing ideas for Away Season 2 — assuming Netflix sees the value in approving this big-budget space drama for a second mission.

Away blasts off on September 4. Only on Netflix.