Today it seems like we have always known what Jupiter and Saturn look like close-up. Open up any book on astronomy, or watch any TV documentary about space, and their iconic appearance is readily available in up-close high definition detail, as familiar to us as any holiday beauty spot on Earth.
But it’s not so long ago that the best view we had of our solar system’s gas giants was as little more than large smeared blobs, and their accompanying moons just pinpricks of light at best. That’s all changed, and within my own lifetime at that: I vividly remember watching the evening news broadcasts in 1979, 1980-1, 1986 and 1989 when the data streamed in from the long distance remote probes, irrevocably transforming our understanding of these worlds. I was so young at the time that this just seemed to be how things in the world worked, that such advances were an every day part of life. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I came to realise what an extraordinary, unparalleled burst of space exploration this truly was. It makes the lunar missions seem parochial by comparison.
While the pictures they provided of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune might be famous and familiar, the name of the probes that supplied them is slowly fading from mainstream memory. These days, most people who weren’t around in the 1970s will likely link Voyager to the Star Trek TV franchise. But in fact Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 should be remembered and celebrated as two of mankind’s finest and most successful explorers in all of history. They literally went where no one had gone before – and quite likely, where no one will ever follow.
Emer Reynold’s film The Farthest – co-financed as part of the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand as well as by PBS in the United States – seeks to restore the Voyager mission to its proper place in the public consciousness. It’s a quiet, respectful and inspiring paean to the Voyager program, to its achievements and breakthroughs, and to all those who contributed to it and made it possible.
As a piece of filmmaking, it’s classy and rather beautiful but ultimately nothing remarkable. If you do happen to know about the Voyager mission which began in 1977 then there won’t be anything particularly new or startling here, although it’ll fresh your recollection of the sharp details of things that you’ve perhaps only hazily remembered.
The documentary includes archive footage from the 70s and 80s and all of the most famous images captured by the two craft as they encountered planets and moons while on their grand tour of Earth’s immediate spatial neighbourhood, which had been made possible through a unique planetary alignment. There are some nice CGI recreations of Voyager’s travels, together with some serviceable impressionistic abstract imagery to fill the gaps.
There’s no voiceover – simple, elegant captions supply any necessary background and linking material. The telling of the story is largely left to new head and shoulders interviews with those people who worked on Voyager – both before and during the missions, and even some still engaged in it to this very day. It’s their pride and passion for what Voyager achieved that will grip you, fascinate you and inspire you – and maybe even squeeze a little tear of heartfelt appreciation out of you in turn, as it did me.
Much of the 90 minute running time is taken up by discussion of the famous golden disc affixed to the side of the two Voyager craft, containing sounds and images from planet Earth in case an alien race should happen across it. Of negligible empirical scientific value, the recording gripped the media imagination at the time and was the brainchild of Dr Carl Sagan, who was one of my all-time scientific heroes and inspirations for precisely this sort of stroke of genius. Among the voices on the disc is a young boy proclaiming greetings from the children of planet Earth, and it was a recording made by Sagan’s son Nick who has since grown up to become a successful novelist and screenwriter in his own right and is among those interviewed here.
Carl Sagan was also responsible for another ‘irrelevant’ moment toward the end of the Voyager 1 mission in 1990, when he asked the team to turn its cameras back the way it had came. Scientifically without value, the picture it captured has gone down in history as the “Pale Blue Dot” in which Earth can be seen as an isolated speck from a distance of 3.7 billion miles, smaller than a pixel in width. It certainly puts us in our place and reminds us of how alone and vulnerable we truly are.
The Voyager probes have kept going since then, periodically reporting in to mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California as they leave the sun’s area of influence and become the first truly interstellar objects successfully created and launched by humans. It’s literally the farthest any man-made object has ever gone, and quite possibly ever will go. Eventually they will be out of transmission range altogether and their power sources will falter and die, but they’ll keep going for millions of years as keepsakes of our civilisation. By the time any extra-terrestrials do retrieve the golden disc and figure out how to play its multi-lingual greetings and music from Mozart and Chuck Berry, our planet will be long-gone. However, at least some small echo of who we once were and what we had achieved will have survived, a message contained in a most unlikely bottle.
Not bad going, for a machine that has less computing power than a 21st century electronic car key. What it could have done with a smartphone and a few apps…
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Farthest was shown on BBC Four on Thursday, November 30 2017 at 9pm on BBC Four and is currently available on BBC iPlayer. It has also been released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray.