The Elon Musk question: Should we celebrate the world’s richest man, or fear him?

The Elon Musk Show, SBS (and SBS On Demand) from Thursday, March 30, at 8.30pm

Elon Musk is so omnipresent in our culture you might imagine there’s nothing we don’t already know about him – or anything more we wish to know. But this three-part documentary from the BBC and 72 Films (which made Jimmy Saville: A British Horror Story) feels a lot like essential viewing.

Will the real Elon Musk please stand up.Credit:SBS

The Elon Musk Show packages archival material and fresh interviews with some key figures, but not Musk himself, to create a convincing narrative about what drives the “techpreneur” who has, by dint of inherited wealth, genes, luck and determination, become arguably the richest and most influential person alive.

In short, it’s all about Mars.

Like so many tech bros, the young Musk was a fan of dystopian science-fiction. In particular, the idea of getting to Mars loomed large in his imagination – and later, in his ambitions.

Faced with the imminent collapse of our planet, Musk’s response has been to shift the paradigm away from carbon-based energy towards renewables. But, as some of those interviewed here convincingly argue, his thinking has never truly been earthbound.

Maye Musk has no question about the key to her son’s success: “He’s a genius.”Credit:SBS

“There’s no question he’s going to go to Mars,” says George Blankenship, a former senior executive at Tesla. Why do you think he’s doing The Boring Company, he asks, referring to the tunnelling operation Musk established in 2016. “So he can send one up there and bore underground, and you can have some shade.”

Even the electric vehicles and the systems to charge them are part of the plan. “You can’t go up there and plug something in,” Blankenship says. “There’s a much bigger picture in Elon’s mind than what mere mortals are aware of today.”

There are other ways of understanding Musk, of course, and the series pokes and prods at them. His mother Maye, a model and entrepreneur, has a one-line explanation for everything Elon. “He’s a genius,” she says with a pride that’s as blinding as it is understandable.

Ex-wife Talulah Riley – the British actress Musk married in 2010, divorced in 2012, re-married in 2013 and divorced again in 2016 – describes someone with the ability to be tender and thoughtful but who was more often than not distracted and stuck on whatever problem he needed to solve. And in the early days, there were many.

English actress Talulah Riley was married to Musk – twice. Credit:SBS

“Tesla was the problem child,” she says. His other pet project, SpaceX, almost sapped every last penny of the $250 million he made when eBay bought PayPal, the company from which he’d been ousted as CEO, in 2002. Then, on the fourth and final attempt, it finally launched a rocket that didn’t crash, and won a massive NASA contract.

“It was the first thing that went right,” says Riley. “Elon went from being ridiculed to suddenly his word was gospel.”

It was the making of him, and the unmaking. As someone else observes, “fame does not agree with Elon”. The Twitter debacle, the dabbling in politics, the stockmarket manipulation (whether deliberate or inadvertent), all get a look-in.

The show starts by posing the question it will attempt to answer: Should we celebrate his achievements or be frightened of his power? I’m not sure that it ever arrives at a definitive answer. But it’s a question we should all be asking regardless.

Find more of the author’s work here. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.

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