From The Earth To The Moon (HBO) (1998) [DVD]

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earth-coverWhen HBO first launched in the early 1970s it mainly broadcast feature films and sporting events on a regional cable network in Pennsylvania. After expanding nationwide, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it really started augmenting that content with original programming such as The Larry Sanders Show and not until 1999 that the début of The Sopranos completely changed the nature of the company and made it the worldwide brand for cutting-edge, award-winning drama such as Game of Thrones that it is today.

The year before The Sopranos, HBO had a successful trial run with a 12-part mini-series covering the history of the Apollo moon missions, made in association with Imagine Entertainment which went on to produce 24. Based on Andrew Chaikin’s book A Man on the Moon, From The Earth To The Moon won three Emmys including the prestigious award for Outstanding Miniseries. It also picked up the equivalent Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for TV. Without this timely critical success for HBO, maybe Tony Soprano would never have made it to air and the history of TV drama in the US (and the world) would have taken a very different turn indeed.

Despite the subject matter of From The Earth To The Moon being very much up my street, I have to admit that I was until recently only vaguely aware of the existence of this miniseries. HBO was no global brand back then after all; I didn’t have access to the channel from the UK and didn’t even own a DVD player. Apparently the show did finally get an airing here in 2005 but I have no idea on what channel that happened. It certainly slipped right past me, perhaps because the name of the show is somewhat generic which meant that it merged in with a number of other documentary efforts such as the recently-reviewed In The Shadow Of The Moon or the much-admired For All Mankind. It was only when listening to a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage science discussion panel show in which one of the guests was Tim Daly who appeared in the show playing Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell that the programme finally attained front-of-house ‘I must watch that’ consciousness in my limited brain capacity.

Fortunately was able to oblige me with a low-priced boxset, which was by no means a foregone conclusion as the most recent release of the title was a full ten years ago. It’s not quite the original format of the show as in addition to a remastered soundtrack it has also somewhat more controversially been re-edited to fill a 16:9 widescreen frame rather than the 4:3 aspect ratio in which it was shot. That means some compromises have been made with the material, but it’s to the credit of the technical team that at no point while watching did I feel that the crop had been forced or misaligned by the conversion – unlike, say, the remastered Star Trek: The Original Series episodes which have some very odd ultra-extreme close-ups of characters as a result of the widescreen alterations.

The first person to appear on screen in From The Earth To The Moon is Tom Hanks, and this is clearly very much a passion project for him and fellow producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer after their work on the feature film Apollo 13 to which this is clearly intended as a companion piece. As well as being the show’s executive producer, Hanks also writes and directs episodes and delivers a one-minute monologue introduction setting the scene for all but one of the 12 episodes, and even takes an acting role in the final instalment to emphatically prove his commitment to the series.

That earnest dedication on the part of Hanks and everyone else on the production team shines through the whole endeavour. They clearly view Apollo as the pinnacle of human achievement and regard the people who took part in it – and the astronauts in particular – as modern all-American heroes to be lauded and deified. The spirit of the show is therefore uplifting and celebratory, and while it doesn’t gloss over the reality of some of the problems, setbacks and mistakes that the space program suffered, these things are mainly present to heighten the consequent sense of soaring achievement by all concerned. And to be honest, I’m entirely on board with that view myself.

The earnestness does get in the way of making this entirely fulfilling entertainment, however. The first episode for example – entitled “Can We Do This?”, a brief highlights reel of the Mercury and Gemini achievements that led up to the start of Apollo – is so busy faithfully recreating the early 1960s period and each of the events in question in completely accurate detail that it ends up feeling like one of those well-intentioned but nonetheless still slightly sterile faction drama-documentaries that the BBC still puts out every now and then.

Wisely, the show takes a semi-anthology approach to the rest of the series. Each episode has its own topic, its own writers, composers and directors and even its own largely standalone cast (Nick Searcy as crew operations director Deke Slayton tallies up the most appearances overall and is in all but one episode) which means each episode can take whatever individual stylistic approach it feels appropriate to the subject at hand. The second episode for example is a gripping forensic investigation into the tragic events surrounding the deaths of three astronauts (Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee) in a launchpad fire during a routine test on Apollo One, and the battle that NASA then faced to avoid a cost-cutting Congressional panel cynically using the deaths to shut down the entire program.

While each story is largely self-contained, the events of “Apollo One” inevitably cast a long shadow and bleed into the events of the following episode “We Have Cleared the Tower” which focuses on Mercury veteran Wally Schirra (played by NCIS star Mark Harmon) and his efforts to introduce sweeping safety reforms into the program and impose more of a focus on the rights and responsibilities of the astronauts themselves in the process, since it was their lives on the line at the end of the day. It didn’t make him popular – there’s a lot of eye-rolling behind Schirra’s back – but you’re with him all the way especially with the hindsight of later tragedies for NASA in the era of the space shuttle which remind you of just how unsafe the whole business of space travel is and how safety must never be taken for granted.

apollo11Story-wise the show works hard not to repeat material from one instalment to another but instead finds refreshing new takes on each stage of the Apollo program. The solemnity of the Apollo 11 moon landings for example in which Neil Armstrong (Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn) and Buzz Aldrin (a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston) labour under the weight and expectation of history and with the eyes of the world fixed upon their every step is contrasted rather wonderfully by the carefree tale of Apollo 12 in which three guys who happen to be the absolute best of friends before, during and ever after the mission have a whale of a time laughing and wisecracking their way through their own trip to the moon. (Commander Pete Conrad’s first word as he steps onto the moon? “Whoppee!”)

This approach means that there’s room not only for some of the most oft-told anecdotes from Apollo, but a look at some of the lesser-known tales as well. For me, the episode “Spider” covering the development of the Lunar Excursion Module was a story I’d never heard in detail before and which I found absolutely fascinating, while the story of the Apollo 15 crew’s conversion to the study of geology in “Galileo Was Right” the most unexpectedly inspiring and moving. By contrast, the episode “Mare Tranquilitatis” was inevitably rather overly familiar and added little to my knowledge of the first moon landing, but clearly couldn’t have been omitted from the run.

Unfortunately the show does start to fall into repeating patterns, with far too many episodes relying on a documentary crew or TV reporter asking lots of questions. We’ve already had a lot of documentaries about Apollo and there seems little point in ending up dramatising the fictional making-of around such a project just because the writers are struggling to otherwise shoe-horn in the exposition within a more fulfilling dramatic structure. Added to the faux-interviews are episodes relying on the close-cousin conceit of first person narration, and together these two approaches comprise almost half of the 12 episodes – which is far too repetitive and a format that stifles the natural flow of drama and character development.

That said, the series only really ever falls down once, and that’s with the episode “We Interrupt This Program”. Not wishing to duplicate the approach taken in the feature film Apollo 13, the series thinks out of the box for a way to depict the story of NASA’s most celebrated near-disaster in space and decides to tell it from the perspective of the media covering events. Unfortunately this means using two fictionalised composite figures, Emmett Seaborn (Lane Smith) representing the old and respectful way of doing things and Brett Hutchings (Jay Mohr) the more intrusive tabloid style as he doorsteps relatives of the astronauts to get their tearful breakdowns on camera. The story of the transition of the press during this time is certainly worth telling but it’s hardly unique to the Apollo program and so this just feels like the producers taking the opportunity to have a dig at the media rather than sticking to the subject of the space mission. Not only that, but seeing how the excesses of 24-hour news have developed in the intervening years now makes the exploits of Hutchings et al seem positively demure and even respectful compared with modern reporters, so it doesn’t even carry the sanction of scathing righteousness anymore. In any case, the fact that neither Seaborn nor Hutchings actually existed significantly lessens the interest in this story. By being ‘locked out’ of what’s happening behind closed doors at NASA during this period it feels like a frustrating failure on the part of the show to tell us the full behind-the-scenes story that we had been promised. It’s a shame that the writers didn’t instead focus for example on the real-life voices and public relations faces of NASA who had to find a way of relating this story to the outside world, and the difficult no man’s land they would have found themselves in trying to balance the competing requirements of both groups.

But if that’s a failure then it’s an honourable one distinguished for at least trying something new and ambitious. And the risk of failure in such uncharted territory is pretty much the spirit of Apollo in a nutshell: like the space program itself, From The Earth To The Moon isn’t perfect and makes mistakes but has to be given full marks for making the attempt in the first place and for largely succeeding in its sky-high aims as a whole. For me the series is at its best in the episode “1968” which blends real life social unrest that year with the story of Apollo 8’s inspirational Christmas mission which included the first photographic record of the earth rising over the moon’s horizon. A photo of that event wasn’t even considered for inclusion in the mission ops breakdown but Lovell realised it for the profoundly world-changing sight that it was, and he and crew mates Frank Borman (David Andrews) and Bill Anders (Robert John Burke) duly dropped everything to get all the pictures they could – although as Borman wryly points out, there was a pretty good chance that it would happen all over again on the next orbit! Even so it’s arguably that one sight as much as Armstrong’s first step on the moon that still propels our fascination and love for space travel to this day, and it’s a lovely moment in the show beautifully augmented with almost the only in-episode use of Michael Kamen’s suitably soaring and inspiringly poignant series theme.

Having waxed lyrical about large parts of the show, I should probably add a couple of caveats about the technical side of things. For all that they were impressively state-of-the-art in the day, nothing ages quite so badly as early CGI effects – even old-school practical models bear up ten times better to the passing of time. The CGI used here now looks particularly poor when viewed with modern eyes, lower quality even than you’d expect from a cheap modern PlayStation game. It’s not helped by the previously mentioned conversion to widescreen for this 2005 ‘signature’ release which means blowing up a portion of the frame to fill out the increased width, and which proves particularly unflattering to the CGI scenes recorded on lower-quality video. Actually even the film sequences suffer from exaggerated blunt-force grain, although this is arguably less of a problem as the programme uses a variety of film stock and archive footage throughout and sometimes utilises degraded quality to invoke the relevant period or to fit in with the older material. For example, the episode “1968” consciously switches much of its newly shot footage to artificially ‘aged’ monochrome to blend in with news reel sequences of worldwide anti-Vietnam War riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Another conversion problem – this time from NTSC to PAL – is in evidence by the way that camera pans which should be smooth end up being jerky because of the difference in video standards, and this can be genuinely quite distracting and annoying. Overall it simply shows how far we’ve come in our expectations of DVD and Blu-ray releases in the last decade, because this is rather poor from a technical perspective compared with pretty much everything you’ve ever seen from HBO ever since. It’s almost hard to believe that the modern Game of Thrones DVD boxsets are even on the same medium, such is the level of advancement in ten years.

Perhaps in time HBO will revisit this miniseries for a third release and show it some overdue love – remastering from the film elements for example and perhaps commissioning brand new replacement CGI effects as Paramount did for the aforementioned high definition releases of Star Trek: The Original Series. While the 2005 release contains a decent-for-the-time extra disc of special features (behind the scenes and FX featurettes together with educational supplements on the history of the moon and astronomers over the ages), even here there’s room for significant upgrades such as audio commentaries with the sprawling all-star cast and crew.

And the show really does deserve it: after all, not only is it an outstanding dramatic record of one of the most important and significant projects mankind has ever embarked upon in our short time on this planet, it’s also a programme that itself played an crucial part in making HBO the broadcasting powerhouse that it is today.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

A remastered widescreen version of the series was released on DVD in 2005 and is still available to purchase from online retailers.

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