Blast Lance Armstrong into deep space? This ridiculous reality TV show has made it happen

'Bargain-bin Darth Vader': Lance Armstrong in Stars on Mars
'Bargain-bin Darth Vader': Lance Armstrong in Stars on Mars

There’s a surprise early in new reality series Stars On Mars when Neil Armstrong is revealed to be a contestant. This is a shock on two fronts. Why would the first man on the moon lower himself to a tacky simulation of life on the red planet? You also have to credit his determination to be on screen, considering he died in 2012.

The real Neil Armstrong was humble and quietly spoken, by all accounts – the opposite of the smarmy apparition who steps through a wobbly fake airlock early in Stars On Mars. That’s because it’s disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong – though the distinction initially eludes fellow contestant, actress Ariel Winter, who believes she is in the company of a Nasa legend.

“He’s a real freaking astronaut... you need to Google him,” says the star of sitcom Modern Family. “You need to know everything about him because he is so cool.”

Lance, displaying a humility and approachability that will be a feature of his time on Mars, is quick to set her straight. “If I were Neil Armstrong, I’d be dead,” he says. “I’d prefer to be Lance Armstrong at this point.”

He may prefer Lance. But those views are not necessarily shared by the Southern Australian Film Corporation, which helped fund a series that has just debuted on America’s Fox network. Stars On Mars was filmed in the “Mars-like” environs of the abandoned opal mining town of Coober Pedy in South Australia – but officials who put taxpayer Australian dollars into the project said they had been “unaware” of Armstrong’s involvement.

Well, they are aware now. Not only is Armstrong the highest profile celeb to participate in this “simulation” of life on a Martian colony – he’s also a ready-made villain. Nobody mentions the doping scandal that saw him stripped of his Tour de France titles – except for Armstrong, who refers to it in hilariously oblique terms when he talks about his “very complicated public life”.

There’s nothing complicated about the figure he cuts on Stars On Mars: he’s a free-wheeling baddie, a bargain bin Darth Vader. Exercising alongside an NFL star, he points out that the average football play is seven seconds, while the Tour De France lasts weeks. “Who’s the f______ athlete now,” he leers.

Stars On Mars is produced by Fremantle, the British reality powerhouse behind The X Factor, American Idol and Storage Wars (along with more niche viewing such as Are You Tougher Than A Boy Scout?). Stars On Mars is a cut and paste departure: essentially, it’s I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! crossed with Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

The fun began with the celebrities arriving on “Mars”. Joining Armstrong and Winter are “Real Housewife” Porsha Williams, Olympic skater Adam Rippon, actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin from Super Bad), NFL stars Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman, wrestler Ronda Rousey, actress Tallulah Willis (daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), singer Tinashe and Vanderpump Rules “TV personality” Tom Schwartz.

William Shatner narrates the series
William Shatner narrates the series

They are welcomed by Star Trek’s William Shatner, who beams in remotely from his captain’s log cabin back on Earth to set challenges and deliver hokey voiceover (“In space, only one will make it to the end”).

Air-headed celebs and a cheesy host could make for a winning formula. It’s easy to imagine a UK version of Stars On Mars turning out a hoot – picture, say, Rebekah Vardy and Christopher Biggins bickering over whose turn it is to put the kettle on 140 million miles from Earth (it is unclear if Fox’s Stars On Mars will be airing in Britain). But American celebrities are so image conscious that they are unwilling to do or say anything that will damage their brand and make for a forgettable bunch – the charmless Armstrong aside.

The nuts and bolts of Stars On Mars are dull too. As per the real Mars, there’s a 13-minute delay in their communications with Shatner back on “earth”. And they must wear bulky space suits when leaving their Big Brother-style compound of huts and tunnels.

Otherwise, there is little sense of being anywhere other than on Planet Reality TV. Having made one another’s acquaintance, the celebs’s first task is to appoint the equivalent of a Team Leader on The Apprentice. They bestow the honour on Lynch, who is rewarded with an upgrade to his own room – where he proceeds to lounge for the rest of the episode.

MarsLovin: Christopher Mintz-Plasse takes on the challenge
MarsLovin: Christopher Mintz-Plasse takes on the challenge

Meanwhile, Shatner appears on a video monitor to explain another celeb is waiting to join (comedian Natasha Leggero). Unfortunately, her pod refuses to open. Marshawn puts Armstrong in charge of the rescue mission, and off goes the cyclist, who has now become completely unlikable on two separate planets.

“A lot of us would have died if this was really Mars,” shrugs Mintz-Plasse shortly before he is voted off by his fellow Martians (one contestant gets the boot per episode).

As the show continues, the celebs must cope with dwindling supplies. With Fox’s parent company Disney embarking on a belt-tightening campaign, there’s only so much vacuum-sealed food. But while they have the option of growing their vegetables – just like Matt Damon in The Martian – in part one, at least, the contestants are more interested in standing around chatting than doing any actual work.

The sheer weirdness of the premise has thus far given Stars On Mars a respectable amount of hype. But with results this dreary, will viewers want to say in its orbit? Forget Mars. Ultimately, the real red haze may be the blushes of the executives who commissioned it.

Stars on Mars is on Fox now