At a time when climate change is ravaging Earth and real-life interest in space organizations from NASA to SpaceX has been renewed, there is no shortage of television shows delivering interesting and informative takes on such travel. But while series such as Disney Plus’ “The Right Stuff” goes for the nostalgia play and Netflix’s “Away” contemplates the sacrifice made to leave family behind, it is Nickelodeon’s “The Astronauts” that delivers the truly unique picture of unequipped, untrained children accidentally being launched into space, now thrust together as a makeshift team to survive.
“We are being presented — especially in 2020 with all that’s happened — with portraying a future as a hopeful thing. I think people are really hungry for that — ‘if we all set aside our differences and work together toward a common goal, then we have a very bright and hopeful future,’” “The Astronauts” showrunner Daniel Knauf tells Variety. “It’s kind of like during the Depression when you’d go to the movies and it was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing around. Filmmakers want to present hope.”
“The Astronauts,” which is the first series from Imagine Entertainment’s Kids & Family brand and premieres on Nickelodeon on Nov. 13, starts when five kids use their parents’ security clearances to sneak onto the spacecraft Odyssey, which is being prepared for a mission to retrieve a mysterious foreign object that might be able to save mankind. But once they board, the AI system triggers the launch sequence, and they literally blast off, leaving their parents behind them on the ground to figure out what caused the premature launch and how to not only keep their kids safe when they are “literally millions of kilometers away,” as Knauf puts it, but also how to bring them home.
“The children are in a dangerous place and we really wanted to play that. This is more ‘Apollo 13′ than a kids’ show,” Knauf says. “There’s always the chance that one or more of the kids could perish — and they know that and they talk about that. We play it for laughs sometimes, but we also have very serious discussions about, ‘If we don’t work together we’re going to die up here.’ And so Nickelodeon has let us take some really deep, existential dives with this one.”
Executive producer Ron Howard, who has worked on space projects from the dramatic adaptation “Apollo 13” to the fictional scripted “Mars” to the docudrama “From the Earth to the Moon,” knows how the extreme environment of space can test a person’s character, and he didn’t want “The Astronauts” to shy away from that, even if the characters in questions were kids.
“All of these stories of space and travel are exciting on one hand but what they really mean on a human level, whether it’s going back to ‘The Odyssey,’ is what you learn about individuals and what they learn about themselves going through this. The realism was something we always wanted,” he explains. “You get to use it in a way as almost an allegory because these young people are discovering themselves [and the] parents are understanding what their kids are capable of. I love what that says about empowerment and how they were underestimated.”
Knowing that “audiences around science and technology are demanding” but also “curious,” Howard says there was a feeling of not wanting audience members to wonder why they know something about space travel that the show, and specifically the adult characters within the show who do have careers in that line of work, do not. At the same time, though, the show is not out to shove science lessons down anyone’s throat.
“If it fits inside the teamwork, great; if it’s a natural explanation of things,” says Knauf. “That comes up every once in a while, for instance when the ship goes into its cruising mode and the outriggers deploy and we explain centripetal force and how it would mimic gravity.”
The character of Will (Ben Daon), who Knauf calls a “fan boy” with an “encyclopedic knowledge of sci-fi and genre stuff,” gives the show a chance to bring up certain facts, but the adventure in the show lies in the young team figuring things out as they go. “They’re not trained but they’re also blank slate because they’re kids, so they’re going to recognize, ‘OK the ship is out of balance, and it’s two tons out of balance and there’s two tons of stuff there, so we’re going to try to figure out how to get some of it from there to here,’” Knauf says.
The other titular astronauts are Samy (Miya Cech), who is the commander’s daughter and takes on the leadership role on the ship. “There’s a giddiness. She knows it’s dangerous, but it’s fantastic,” Knauf says of her outlook on the situation. Elliott (Bryce Gheisar), who has been raised and is expected to be a leader ends up slipping into the “first mate”or “No. 2” spot, Knauf notes. And then there are siblings: Martin (Keith L. Williams) is the older brother and protector to Doria (Kayden Grace Swan) who is explicitly told by his father to watch out for his sister as they are taking off.
“Each character has their role and they fall into it or find their way there during the course of the voyage,” Knauf says.
But even as they are tasked with growing up immensely in a short amount of time, including learning that the old adage about being able to do anything if you just work hard enough is actually just a “benevolent lie or half-truth,” says Knauf, they are still young at heart, and he wanted the show to reflect that, too. “I went to our set dresser and I said, ‘With each episode I want to see more scuff marks on the walls, more torn cushions, spilled Coke stains,’” he says.
The majority of the show (85-90%, according to Knauf) takes place on the ship with the kids, but both Howard and Knauf note the show is really designed to be multi-quadrant viewing. “I wanted to create something that really celebrated values like sacrifice and courage with these aspirational characters,” Knauf says, noting that is something he always admired from Imagine’s work.
“The Astronauts” is not only the first series to launch from Imagine’s Kids & Family slate, but it is also a tentpole title, says Howard. “Whether this is the escapism you need or these are the themes that [you] can really benefit from by watching right now — or in the best of both worlds you get both the escapism and also some ideas to chew on,” he says, he considers the space race “among the noblest activities that human beings can engage in.”
“Trying to look beyond the horizon to what else is possible and what else we could achieve, I think society always benefits from that kind of effort and what we can learn from it, so I think it’s great that that dream is alive again,” he continues.
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