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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - From the Earth to the Moon

 Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly look at one of the things in my DVD library.  Today, we tackle the epic HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.  This is originally dated in my notes at December 2, 2012. 

For the longest time, I've wanted to see From the Earth to the Moon.  And now, I can check that off my bucket list.

For those who may not have heard of it, in the days after the film, Apollo 13, Apollo 13's director Ron Howard and its star Tom Hanks, after all the time on the set sharing their mutual love for the space program, figured that there were still many, many stories to tell about the Apollo program and the American quest to put a man on the moon.  So they came up with the idea to do an epic television miniseries about the entire Apollo space program.  As HBO was starting to gain their reputation for doing incredibly high quality television programming, they bought the concept, and From the Earth to the Moon was born.  When it first aired in 1998, it gained tons of critical acclaim and was a ratings success.  A few years later, Tom Hanks teamed up with Steven Spielberg and, fresh off of Saving Private Ryan, they repeated the same formula with Band of Brothers.

It took me a heck of a long time to be able to sit down and watch it.  I remember reading in the paper back in the time that, when it first premiered in 1998, it ran into a few distribution problems in Canada.  With the advent of a ton of new cable channels in the late 1990s, and various regional restrictions, the Canadian distribution rights were picked up by a cable channel that was only available in Ontario.  Eventually, it did find its way to Space (Canada's answer to Syfy), but by the time it did, I was done college, and no longer had the free cable that was in the dorms.  I was back home, and my parents' cable company didn't get Space.  The last serious attempt I made to watch it was when a colleague of mine in Japan loaned me his VHS copy.  I got into the first 10 minutes, when I realized it was dubbed in Japanese and my cheap VCR wasn't capable of the SAP to switch it over to English.  And besides, I only had a week left in Japan at this point, and I figured I should turn away from the TV and get back to packing up my apartment.

I'd sought out the DVDs from time to time at various online retailers, but found the price to be a bit rich for my blood.  And then, about a month and a half ago, I was in HMV in West Edmonton Mall, and I saw the big boxed set of the entire series marked down to $15.  And I was all like, "HOLY CRAP, THIS IS THE CHEAPEST I'VE EVER SEEN IT, IF I DON'T BUY IT, I'LL BE INCREDIBLY STUPID!  I'll be down $15, and unable to buy gas money for the ride home, BUT I WON'T BE STUPID!"

I've spent the occasional free hour over the past few weeks popping it into the DVD player and watching the series from beginning to end.  And all I can say is...oh my God, you guys, this show is so awesome.  I know I'm, what, 13 years late to the party on this one, but this series is just mind-blowing.  There's not better word than awe-struck.  I was awe-struck with this series. 

The first moment of awe I experienced was watching the first episode, Can We Do This?  The episode starts with John F. Kennedy's famous speech in which he pledges to put a man on the Moon and return him safely by the end of the 1960s, and the episode concerns itself with various NASA officials asking each other the question that forms the episode's title.  It briefly summarizes the Mercury and Gemini programs, which were done to devise and test the methods that would be used.  Near the end, there's this one scene, where Buzz Aldrin is on a spacewalk in a Gemini capsule, and we see him straddling the rocket ship as it orbits the Earth.  Here is a man, literally riding a rocket around the Earth, and in the back of my mind, a little voice whispered, "Dude...this actually happened."  Granted, I was seeing a re-creation for television, but all throughout the series, whenever I'd watch the footage of some spacewalk or the astronauts conducting experiments on the Moon, that voice would once again whisper, "This actually happened," and I'd start feeling a little bit of fear for the characters on TV.  And that's what the greatest television should do.

And now, just my random reflections on the episodes on this 12-part series.

Episode 2:  Apollo 1 - As you may recall, during a routine test, Apollo 1 burst into flames on the launchpad, killing all three astronauts inside.  This episode concerns itself mainly with the investigation into what caused the fire, and some congressional hearings as politicians tried to take advantage of the situation to axe the program.  What struck me about this was, during the investigation, we see absolutely everyone involved in the space program - from everyone at NASA to the private contractors, EVERYONE - take the disaster personally.  Just about every character in this episode has a scene where they sit and cry.  And everyone resolved to be better.

Episode 3: We Have Cleared the Tower - Focusing on Apollo 7, which, after following the Apollo 1 tragedy, was NASA's first time back at sending people into space.  (Following the disaster, Apollo 2 - 6 were unmanned test flights).  The way this episode is set up is it's a pseudo-documentary about the Apollo 7 crew, and it ends with the actual launch.  Mark Harmon, currently the star of NCIS, puts in a great performance as Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra, and walks the wonderful dichotemy of being the prankster of the astronauts, but also a tough and seasoned space veteran who frequently butts heads with NASA administration for the betterment of the mission.  Great performance.

Episode 4:  1968 - As the episode shows, 1968 was a pretty shitty year for the USA.  The assasinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy...things were escallating in Vietnam...this just sucked.  And then, due to a delay in the development of the Lunar Module, NASA decided that, for Apollo 8, they would actually put men into orbit...around the Moon.  Needless to say, such an act greatly accelerated the program, and provided the USA with just the pick-me-up they needed.

Episode 5:  Spider - The main plot line in this one is the development of the Lunar Module, the ship that actually landed on the Moon.  The last half of the episode focuses on Apollo 9, which was the first manned test flight of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit.  I always wondered if it was possible to make an inanimate object the main character of a movie, but in this one, the Lunar Module really does feel like the main character.  All the love and dedication poured into making that machine...just amazing.

Episode 6: Mare Tranquilis - the big one.  The dramatization of Apollo 11, and the first landing on the Moon.  The one I remember about this one is it really seems like the main character is Buzz Aldrin.  As he mentions in the episode, he fears that everyone around him - including Neil Armstrong - is so focused on completing the mission that no one is taking a moment to acknowledge the history that they're making.  So Buzz is the only one, he feels, that is taking the time to say, "Holy moly, we're the first humans to set foot on another world."  Riveting character stuff.  Bryan Cranston, who after this went on to play the clueless dad Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, and is currently winning ALL the critical praise as teacher-turned-druglord Walter White on Breaking Bad plays Aldrin, and it's an amazing performance.  Tony Goldwin plays Neil Armstrong, and he has a great moment, too.  Right after they land on the Moon, and before he utters those immortal words "The Eagle has landed," he turns to Aldrin, and he has a look on his face that just screams, "Holy fuck, we actually did it." 

Episode 7:  That's All There Is - This is, hands down, the funniest episode.  As the lead character, astronaut Alan Bean says, Apollo 12, the second mission to the Moon, was the biggest anti-climax in history.  It's also been widely recorded that Apollo 12 was the most close-knit crew in NASA history, and in this episode, they're almost portrayed as being a bunch of frat boys in space.  That fact that Bean is played by Kid in the Hall Dave Foley just adds to the humour.  Bean actually narrates the whole episode, and it really comes across as a guy telling stories about work over a beer one night.  It's like they knew history wouldn't remember the second crew to walk on the Moon, so they just decided to have fun with it.

Episode 8: We Interrupt this Program - Apollo 13.  OK, so when Hanks and Howard came up with this series, they wanted to focus on stories that hadn't been told.  And, since they made Apollo 13, they really didn't want to repeat themselves.  So We Interrupt This Program is told from the point of view of the media, and how they chose to cover the space program and the Apollo 13 disaster.  It focuses on the struggle between veteran space journalist Emmett Seaborn, who wants to focus on the science and technical aspects, and hotshot rookie Brett Hutchings, who wants to exploit the human tragedy and focus more on the astronauts and their families.  And at the end of the episode, when Hutchings' methods have won out and he scores a major interview with the NASA brass, and a dejected Seaborn walks away, you feel like this old stallion has just been put out to pasture, and you just can't help but feel the guy.  Working in the media, I found this episode utterly fascinating, especially how reporters have to walk the fine line between reporting the news and not pissing off your sources.

Episode 9: For Miles and Miles - Our main character in this one is Alan Shepard, America's first man in space.  Shortly after his Mercury flight, he was taken out of rotation because he was diagnosed with Meniere's Disease, an inner ear condition that would leave him with crippling episodes of nausea and tinnitus.  The main plot thrust seems to be his quest to get back into space, following the revolutionary surgery that made his condition managable, and now in his late-40s, NASA's oldest astronaut, fighting the stigma that he's grown too old for this.  But needless to say, he pulled it off.  A fascinating portrait of a fascinating man.

Episode 10: Galileo Was Right - So, despite landing people on the Moon, NASA started getting a lot of shit from the scientific community.  While many astronauts held their masters and Ph.D.s, their education was primarily in aeronautics and aircraft design.  The science community wanted NASA to start sending scientists more appropriate to the task at hand up there to do real scientific work.  So, to counter this, the crew of Apollo 15 was the first to receive extensive training in field geology so they could actually grab good Moon rocks instead of just the random stuff they found.  This episode is almost a classroom drama, as we follow the training of the Apollo 15 crew with the geologists, and it's fun watching the astronauts go from being the stereotypical flight jockeys to genuine science geeks.  They even start butting heads with the NASA brass to make the mission more scientific in nature.  Again, just fun.

Episode 11:  The Original Wives' Club - In the 1960s, NASA divided their astronauts into groups, based on when they joined the rotation, and gave them cute, media-friendly nicknames.  This episode focuses on the wives of the astronauts in "The New Nine," and the extraordinary pressures that having an astronaut in the family put on their marriages.  A coda saying what happened to the wives shows it all:  two widowed, five divorces, and only two lived happily ever after.  And even one of those "happily ever afters" is dubious because she became an alcoholic.  I'm still debating with something portrayed in this episode...I can't figure out if it was the right thing to do or chicken-shit.  Whenever one of the astronauts was killed, NASA would tell one of the astronaut's wife's friends first, and ask her to go over to the wife's house to "just pop in for a visit."  That way, the wife wouldn't be alone when the government man came over to break the news.  For the first part of that visit...good God, how can you keep that secret?  And they also awkwardly shoehorn in some scenes from Apollo 16, to maintain the chronology of the series. 

Episode 12:  Le Voyage dans la Lune - The final episode is perhaps the most unusual.  A pseudo-documentary, recounting the final Apollo mission, #17, in which the first true scientist-astronaut was sent to the Moon.  And it is contrasted with the making of the legendary French silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune, aka that film where a spaceship pokes the Man in the Moon in the eye, and how the revolutions in filmmaking were similar to the revolutions in sending a Man to the Moon.  Very interesting, but a very satisfying end to the series.

And again, I can't believe the talent that went into making this series.  Watching the opening credits for each episode, I recognized the names of several feature film directors directing episodes, such as Frank Marshall (legendary film producer), Jon Turtletaub (National Treasure), Jonathon Mostow (Terminator 3), Hanks himself, and Hanks even got his Forrest Gump co-star Sally Field to direct an episode.  And I also recognized some noted film composers doing the music for these episodes.  I tell  ya, each episode was pretty much an hour-long short film.

All I can say was watching this series was well worth the 13-year wait, and every penny of the $15 I spent on it.  Makes me wish I'd never given up on my dream of being an astronaut.  Remember that?   In 1992, the CSA put out this gigantic ad in all of the nation's newspapers encouraging people to apply to be astronauts.  And, being a trekkie in junior high when that ad came out, it sparked the imagination.  And what happened to the imagination...the desire to have humans set foot on other planetary bodies?  I tend to blog this every year when the anniversary of Apollo 11 rolls around.  It just blows my mind that setting foot on another world is something that humankind strove for, accomplished, and then got bored with, all before I was born.  We need TV shows like this, to spark the imagination again, and continue the voyages from the Earth to the Moon. 

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