Plot: What’s it about?
In April, 1998 HBO launched From the Earth to the Moon. Produced by Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, the same team that was responsible for Apollo 13 only three years prior, it was an unprecedented event. Let’s recall that in 1998 television was still ruled by the big three networks…and Fox. HBO was still a “premium” channel that had to be paid for (it still is, actually) and though they were somewhat known for their original programming, it was nothing like this. With Hanks and Howard at the helm, From the Earth to the Moon had a budget of nearly $70 million – more than most feature films. And, let’s not forget, this was before Sex and the City and The Sopranos, two shows that really put HBO on the map. It was released in two hour segments with a dozen total. It gave viewers the chance to feel as if they were “at the movies” though at home. The cast had many familiar faces and now even more familiar to us with Bryan Cranston, Tim Daly, Cary Elwes and Tony Goldwyn leading the way. Granted these weren’t Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, but well-known actors to say the least.
Loosely-based on Andrew Chaikin’s novel A Man on the Moon, the series chronicled the trials and tribulations of the Apollo space missions. The title of the first episode says it all: “Can We Do This?” And, when you sit down and think about it, it’s simply amazing. We, as a people, were able to figure out how to construct rockets to bring astronauts into space and land successfully on an object 250,000 miles away. For all of mankind’s achievements, I’d say it goes without saying that this sits atop the list. Not all the episodes are linear. We meet a variety of the Apollo crew, their wives, scientists and even the news anchors who gave it all coverage. Not all episodes focus on the space travel, some focus on their wives (many of the astronauts got divorced due to the strains of the job), one is dedicated to the building of the lunar landing module. Truthfully there’s no stone left unturned when it comes to the breadth of material covered.
Below are a list of episodes with some capsules (sorry, couldn’t resist) as to their content.
- Episode 1: “Can We Do This?” – Covers the early years of the United States’ “Space Race” with the Soviet Union, including the creation of NASA and the decision to send men to the Moon. Provides an overview of the Mercury and Gemini programs, concentrating on reconstructions of Alan Shepard’s pioneering Freedom 7 Mercury flight; Ed White’s first US spacewalk on Gemini 4, the near-disastrous in-flight failure during Neil Armstrong’s and David Scott’s Gemini 8 mission; and the successful completion of Gemini with Buzz Aldrin’s perfection of extravehicular activity on Gemini 12.
- Episode 2: “Apollo One” – Portrays the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire from the perspective of its subsequent investigation by NASA and the US Congress. Its effects on key individuals are shown, including Harrison Storms of North American Aviation, Joseph Shea of NASA, astronaut Frank Borman charged with supporting NASA’s investigation, and the widows of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
- Episode 3: “We Cleared the Tower” – Portrays the Apollo program’s recovery to crewed flight after the Apollo 1 tragedy, from the perspective of a fictional documentary team covering the flight of Apollo 7. This flight is commanded by strong-willed Mercury veteran Wally Schirra, who is focused on safety after the death of his colleague Grissom. Pad Leader Guenter Wendt, another zealous guardian of astronaut safety, is featured by the documentary team.
- Episode 4: “1968” – Depicts Apollo 8’s historic first crewed lunar flight, as the redemption of an otherwise strife-torn year filled with political assassinations, war, and unrest. Documentary footage of the turbulent political events are interspersed with the drama, which is mostly filmed in black and white except for scenes aboard the spacecraft and some color newsreel footage. The fears of mission commander Frank Borman’s wife Susan of the possibility of her husband dying in a spacecraft trapped in lunar orbit are highlighted. Includes the Apollo 8 Genesis reading.
- Episode 5: “Spider” – Returns to 1961, and NASA engineer John Houbolt’s lonely fight to convince management that the easiest way to land men on the Moon will be to use a separate landing craft employing lunar orbit rendezvous. It then traces the design and development of the Lunar Module by a team led by Grumman engineer Tom Kelly. Covers the selection and training of the first crew to fly it, James McDivitt and Rusty Schweickart (along with Command Module pilot David Scott), and culminates with their first flight of Spider in Earth orbit on Apollo 9. The Apollo 10 lunar “dress rehearsal” is briefly mentioned.
- Episode 6: “Mare Tranquilitatis” – A dramatization of the Apollo 11 first Moon landing in Mare Tranquillitatis (“Sea of Tranquility”) is interspersed with flashback sequences of Emmett Seaborn’s television interview with the crew of Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin, and Command Module pilot Michael Collins.
- Episode 7: “That’s All There Is” – The story of the Apollo 12 second lunar landing mission is told by Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean. Bean, the last member of NASA Astronaut Group 3 to fly in space, narrates his experience with the tightly-knit, all-Navy crew commanded by Gemini veteran Pete Conrad, and accepts with humor and grace his responsibility for the failure of the first color TV camera on the lunar surface, and for almost fracturing his own skull by failing to properly secure the Command Module’s TV camera before splashdown.
- Episode 8: “We Interrupt this Program” – This episode covers the perilous flight of Apollo 13 entirely from the ground point of view; the astronauts are only heard on radio. Veteran TV spaceflight reporter Emmett Seaborn (Lane Smith) is summoned to broadcast the breaking news of the in-flight failure, as young reporter Brett Hutchings (Jay Mohr) is pulled off of sports to help with the coverage. As the crisis unfolds, Seaborn finds himself at odds with Hutchings’ style of sensationalizing its impact on the astronauts’ families, and criticizing NASA. Seaborn starts to feel he is being marginalized when the network decides to leave Hutchings on location in Houston, while sending him back to headquarters to provide only background coverage. The last straw falls when, after the successful recovery of the astronauts, Hutchings horns in on his traditional post-flight interview with flight controller Gene Kranz. Seaborn leaves dejectedly, not to be seen again until the flight of Apollo 17 in the final episode.
- Episode 9: “That’s all there is” – In 1964, while riding high on his fame as America’s first man in space and his expected command of the first Gemini mission, Alan Shepard is suddenly struck with Ménière’s disease, characterized by vertigo and nausea. Flight operations director Deke Slayton must ground him, but offers him the job of chief astronaut, effectively making Shepard Slayton’s assistant as supervisor of all the astronauts. A few years later, a surgeon tries an experimental surgery which cures Shepard’s symptoms, and he is returned to the flight rotation, commanding Apollo 14 in early 1971, which accomplishes Apollo 13’s failed Fra Mauro landing. Shepard brings a six-iron golf club head on board, which he fastens to a soil-collecting tool handle and uses to hit a ball “for miles and miles”.
- Episode 10: “Galileo was Right” – Scientist astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist, persuades his mentor, professor Lee Silver, to train the Apollo astronauts in selecting appropriate rock samples to collect through field experience, rather than the boring classroom lectures NASA has been using. Silver takes the four Apollo 15 prime and backup landing crew members (David Scott, James Irwin, Richard F. Gordon, Jr., and Schmitt) to the southwestern desert, while lunar geologist Farouk El-Baz trains the Command Module pilots (Alfred Worden and Vance D. Brand) in high-altitude recognition of geological features using airplane flights over Hawaii. Schmitt is disappointed to learn his own Apollo 18 flight will be cancelled, but he still believes the training of the other astronauts is vital. It pays off when Scott and Irwin find the “Genesis Rock”, originally believed to come from the Moon’s primordial crust. The title refers to Scott’s reproduction of an experiment proving Galileo’s hypothesis that gravity will cause bodies of differing masses to fall at the same rate in a vacuum, by dropping a hammer and a feather.
- Episode 11: “The Original Wives Club” – Shows the Apollo program from the point of view of the nine wives of NASA’s second group of astronauts, from 1962 beyond the end of the program. The burdens placed on them include maintaining a home while presenting a positive image to the news media, shielding their husbands from any family concerns which could affect their position in the flight rotation or ability to return to Earth safely, and comforting each other in the face of tragedies which kill Elliot See and Ed White. The episode is anchored by the Apollo 16 mission, during which recently married Ken Mattingly loses his wedding ring in the Command Module, and Lunar Module pilot Charles Duke finds it while Mattingly is performing a walk in deep space.
- Episode 12: “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” – The story of the final lunar mission, Apollo 17, is told as a pseudo-documentary set several decades after the fact. Simulated interviews of various characters such as Emmett Seaborn and flight director Christopher C. Kraft Jr., in old-age makeup, are included. The documentary is interspersed with the story of early French filmmaker Georges Méliès’ creation of his vision of a trip to the Moon, the 1902 Le Voyage dans la Lune. Scenes from the original film are merged with the recreation of its filming.
- Courtesy of Wikipedia
Video: How’s it look?
Each of the episodes has been digitally remastered for this new Blu-ray presentation. Purists are unhappy as new digital effects were added in to “update” some of those that were in the 1998 original. Granted, it’s only a couple of decades, but we’ve come a long way with what we can do digitally. I, for one, liked the updated special effects. The same thing was done with the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes when they hit Blu-ray. Nearly all the episodes contain some archival footage and even footage that’s meant to look archived, though it was filmed for the series. The “live” shots are indicative of anything we’ve come to expect from a big budget production like this. This presentation, though a bit inconsistent, does give the series more authenticity and, I feel, is one of the things that helps people relate to what’s going on. Suffice it to say, it’s a good-looking series.
Audio: How’s it sound?
HBO has given us a newly-mastered Dolby Atmos soundtrack and though it pales in comparison to some more recent films, it does offer the best possible audio available. The majority of the series is dialogue-driven and all voices from the variety of actors, sound just fine. Hanks opens each episode with an introduction along with the opening credits – they sound amazing. While the dynamic range is still a bit limited, I found the overall sound quality out of this world. Whoops, I did it again. Sorry. Still, like the video presentation, I highly doubt many will find much to complain about with the way this sounds.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Behind the Scenes: Making of From the Earth to the Moon – Given the quality of the entire series, it’s no surprise that this 30 minute feature is packed with some interesting archival tapes, interviews with the cast and crew as well as some behind the scenes footage.
- Inside the Remastering Process – As I mentioned in the “Video” section above, there are those who will want something the way it was originally intended. I’m not one of those people. I enjoyed the new special effects that maximized what we’re able to do with digital effects. This featurette gives us a look at how (and why) this was done. I found it fascinating and enjoyable.
The Bottom Line
From the Earth to the Moon is more than a chronicle of Man’s greatest accomplishment. In many ways it changed the way television series were done and certainly made HBO a bigger player in the network battles. If films like Apollo 13 or First Man are up your alley, this one’s for you.