The colours of Mars…

Mars is a beautiful planet – well, I think so anyway. Nature painted it with an artist’s  palette of rusty reds, caramel browns and salmon pinks, and every image taken by a rover trundling around the surface or a by a spacecraft staring down from orbit has something in it I find mesmerising. No surprise then that Mars has been visited in many dramas on TV and in the cinema, and depicted with varying degrees of success and accuracy. Here are a few compared…


Of those, special credit must go to the BBC series “Space Odyssey” which did a really good job of showing a realistic view of Mars. “The Martian” did pretty well too, and the much- (and rightly!) maligned “Mission To Mars” actually showed a realistic version of Mars too, before ruining it with that stupid sand monster and then tipping over the edge into utter “Oh you’re having a laugh!!” insanity with the aliens at the end. The original “Total Recall” is hugely entertaining, one of my favourite cheesy sci fi films, but the Mars shown in that movie is SO red it makes your eyes hurt almost as much as Arnie’s as they bulged in their sockets after his helmet shattered…

Now we have “Mars”, the “television event” drama/documentary being shown on National Geographic, which, we were promised, would be a gritty, realistic dramatisation of a mission to Mars and the start of the colonisation of the red planet. I’m not sure it’s that… not sure at all… It’s ok, but it’s sooooo slow, and the characters in it are so dour and so utterly devoid of wonder and enthusiasm that it’s quite a dark watch. It’s taken me four episodes – and the arrival of some much more interesting secondary characters – to really get into it, but it seems to be in its stride now, and I’m looking forward to how it pans out, although to be honest if all of the characters died I wouldn’t mind too much, I don’t really care much about them.

No, my main issue with the series is the main character in it – the planet Mars itself. It just doesn’t look like Mars. It’s a bland, washed-out desert wasteland that just looks fifty shades of beige, with a bit of greeny-grey here and there. To me it looks nothing like Mars at all.

Now, the whole “what colour is Mars?” question is a minefield, and that topic has been debated at length – and often heatedly -in space enthusiast forums and groups countless times already. If we were both stood on Mars, you and I dear reader, what you would see would be different to what I saw; our eyes would not see exactly the same shades and hues. So, any colour picture or depiction of Mars is very subjective, really just the personal choice of the person or people making that picture. I know I make my colour images reflect the Mars I “see” in my head, and feel in my heart; I don’t claim for a moment my images are scientifically or visually accurate, I never have done. But my colourisations are based largely on the processed and calibrated images produced and posted online by the team behind the Mars Exploration Rovers. Images like this…


That’s the kind of colour balance I try to get in my images. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it depends on the images that came down and what I can do with them using the software I have. Here are some of my recent “views” of Mars made with raw images sent back by Opportunity…




… but when you look at the Mars shown in “Mars” it seems sadly lacking in martian colour and beauty to me…


What do you think? Maybe it’s just me, but that looks really washed out to me, more like the hideous and unrealistic bile yellow-green “colourisations” some image processors make. I can’t help thinking that if the producers of Mars had just tweaked the colours a little it would have looked so much better…


Does it matter? Really? Probably not, I said this was just a personal thing. But watching “Mars” I honestly don’t feel like the characters are ON Mars, and I can’t help wonder if others are feeling the same. None of the planet’s raw beauty or geological grandeur is on the screen. We haven’t seen any of the famous landmarks, either, which is puzzling and frustrating considering the budget the production must have had.

Maybe I’m in the wrong here. Maybe “my” Mars, the Mars I make in my images, is too red, too colourful, too saturated, and my images should be toned down a bit? Here’s a new panoramic mosaic I made today, from images taken by Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory… to me, THIS is Mars, this is MY Mars, the Mars is see in my head and, yes, feel in my heart… (click to enlarge)


I don’t claim that’s 100% accurate, and again, this whole colour thing is very personal and subjective, but I feel that, based on NASA’s own calibrated images, that’s not too far from the view you would see if you stood on Mars at that spot.

That is the Mars I see in *here* (taps head), and feel in *here* (taps chest), and  make no apologies for showing it like that.

I wonder when I will see that Mars… my Mars… on TV or in a film?  I think it will probably take someone to film Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic “Mars Trilogy” to make my Mars appear on a screen, because the first book in that series, “Red Mars”, was the book that literally changed my life when I read it, back in 1992 (oh… my… god… that’s almost a quarter of a century ago…!)


That book (yes, that book there in the photo, that’s my beloved first edition copy) picked me up like the claw of a martian war machine, transported me to Mars, dropped me on its surface and made me fall hopelessly, head over heels in love with it. The landscape KSR described was achingly beautiful..I was there, with the icy regolith crumping beneath my boots, staring out at rolling cinnamon-dusted hills beneath a huge pink-brown sky…

Maybe one day some brave person or team will film “Red Mars” and do it justice, and then, finally, *my* Mars will appear on screen. Until then I guess I’ll just have to make do with the Mars of ‘The Martian’ and now ‘Mars’. Which is better than nothing, don’t get me wrong.

But I want to see my Mars.

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2 Responses to The colours of Mars…

  1. Eric Hahn says:

    Finally, I read about somebody else whose life was impacted by Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy.” The books made me see and feel Mars as a very real place, a very attainable place. The challenges of colonizing Mars and the technical & social solutions offered by Robinson seem very realistic to this seasoned sci-fi reader.
    Beyond that, the books altered my viewpoint of Earth; causing me to see our planet not as a chaotic collection of disparate ecological and social parts, but more as a manageable whole. In a sense, making the Earth seem smaller, and all the more precious.

    • phoenixpics says:

      Thanks Eric, appreciate you taking the time to comment (and read my blog!). Yes, KSR’s books had a huge impact on me, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read “Red Mars” now…

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