"From The Earth To The Moon" is a 12-hour long TV miniseries that was initiated and produced by Tom Hanks for HBO. After its broadcasting it was immediately obvious that this series was an outstanding effort in recounting the events that were known as the "Race Into Space". Through its extremely high production values, the series brings the events that wrote history in the 1960’s, to life in a form we have never been able to witness them before, earning the production an unheard-of 17 Emmy Award nominations. The series utilizes original, contemporary documentary footage and newly shot footage depicting the events, and spices the mix up with a good portion of computer generated images that allow us to take a look at a number of those things, only the astronauts were able to see at the time. Although clearly documentary in nature, the filmmakers decided not to present this series as a traditional documentary, but instead opted to create different episodes, each of which is dedicated to a certain milestone of the space program during the period. Within these episodes, we experience the recollection of the events in a feature film like manner, with well-developed characters, defined plots and all the dramatic devices in use that filmmakers have at their hands. Together these episodes create a compelling documentary that allows the viewer to become emotionally involved and part of the events, rather than objectively observing from a distance.
The series’ first episode is entitled "Can We Do That?" and tells the start-up of the American space program. When the Soviets managed to shoot Yuri Gagarin into space in early 1961, the world held its breath and watched in awe. The feat was a serious blow in the face of the "undefeatable" American mentality, and immediately, an ambitious space program was spawned with its ultimate goal to have the first man walking on the moon. Sadly, the interest in the space program and its goal was not born out of any scientific reasons or the curiosity to explore the moon, it was a pure political statement the American government wanted to make to emphasize America’s superiority over the communistic Soviets. It is a sad testament of the mentality of the time, although it surely allowed mankind to push space travel much harder than it would otherwise have ever been able to. The episode shows how NASA planned to achieve the goal that was set by president John F. Kennedy at the time, when he overly optimistically proclaimed, the Americans would have a man on the moon before the turn of the century.
This left NASA little more than nine years to develop a program and the technologies needed to achieve this daring feat. Plans were made, and step by step, NASA created a series of unmanned and manned space flights in their "Gemini" projects to come to grips with the problems and risks involved in traveling into space. Soon their efforts and developments allowed them to have longer space travels than the Soviets. The space project was in full gear.
"Apollo 1" is the title of the second episode and it quickly establishes itself as one of the strongest episodes in the entire series. Enthusiastic about their success so far, NASA started to Apollo program, whose ultimate goal was to take a crew to the moon, allow them to walk the moon’s surface and safely return them home to the Earth. Once again it was a step by step program that built on the success of its previous efforts, before taking the premise one step further. Basic technologies had been developed in the "Gemini" projects and now it was the time to try more daring ventures. Technologies and training methods were constantly refined and NASA was on its way to send the first crew into space, when during a routine check, a fire in the capsule brings the project to an abrupt and tragic halt.
All three crew members died in this terrible accident, and government ruled investigations tried to shed light on the events surrounding the tragic cabin fire. To some senators the space program had long been a thorn in their side, because of the seemingly useless waste of American tax dollars, which could have been spent in more beneficial, social ways. The search for a scapegoat became more and more frenzied, and the Apollo project was close to collapsing in front of the eyes of the whole world. Eventually patriotism took over however, and after thorough investigations the problems that caused the accident were isolated. With that in mind, Apollo was greenlighted once again, but it would not be the same anymore. It had lost some of its leaders and more importantly, it had lost some of its most senior astronauts. Questions arose whether the whole race into space was after all, maybe, a little too ambitious.
"Spider" is an impressive episode about the development of the Lunar Module. From the start, the NASA developers recognized that they could not use a standard rocket type to land and lift off from the moon. The fuel needed to break through the moon’s gravity with a full size rocket would have been too much to carry. Different ideas were tossed around and one talented outside visionary submitted the idea of a lunar orbiting sation to NASA. While seemingly fantastic at first, the idea quickly took shape and it became evident that it held the only viable solution to the problem. An outside contractor was hired to build and develop the lunar excursion module (LEM) that would allow astronauts to leave the orbiting space station and fly down to the moon’s surface with a lightweight vehicle. After seven years of development, the first LEM was sent to Cape Kennedy for tests in space. Although it had posed a number of technical problems in its development and seemed quirky in its early testing stages, the module turned out to be working perfectly under the real conditions and the last hurdle to allow a manned moon landing was finally taken. This episode clearly shows how much effort, dedication and love the engineers put into creation of the LEM. We witness how they take their first obstacles to reduce the weight of the module and how they run out of time towards the end of the development and need to make last-minute adjustments in the critical days before its initial test launch.
"Mare Tranquilitatis" finally is the episode we are certainly all looking forward to the most. It is the episode covering the historic first moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It highlights the importance of the mission in a variety of aspects. Not only was this an important mission for NASA to win their race into space, but it was important for mankind and the astronauts involved alike. One of the main questions became, who would be allowed to become the first man to set foot on the moon? As it turns out today, almost 30 years later, the flight of Apollo 11 would be a truly memorable and historic moment. Certainly everyone old enough to remember, still recalls where he or she has been at the time when the Armstrong and Aldrin first landed and set foot on the moon.
Many years after the historic flight, I had the chance to meet and talk to Buzz Aldrin myself to talk about this mission and the race into space in general. It was an absolutely amazing experience to listen to his stories and his personal recollection of these moments that have changed mankind forever. Seeing it from start to end in this outstanding episode, leaves you stunned and speechless about the magnitude of the whole space program.
The Apollo 13 mission is certainly still living vividly in everyone’s mind, partly due to Ron Howard’s excellent film version of the same name, starring no other than this series executive producer Tom Hanks himself. The episode that deals with the disastrous mission that almost cost the astronauts their lives, is unfortunately the weakest one of the whole package. Albeit still very good and entertaining, it degrades the actual problems and events of the mission. Instead of recollecting the events the way the feature film did, this episode shows us how a young career opportunistic journalist uses the tragic scenario to create what has sadly become commonplace in today’s TV world here in the U.S. - unscrupulous tabloid newscast without the slightest remainder of ethics. As long as he gets his headlines and 30 seconds of fame on the air, this news reporter isn’t shying away from anything and instigates the pain of the people involved, degrading the actual problems of the mission to a sheer sideshow. Since the Apollo 13 mission was clearly one of the most dramatic events in the whole space program, it is unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t take their chance here to retell the story. I understand that rehashing Ron Howard’s film wouldn’t do any good, but I believe there would have been a better way to present this episode and this extremely critical mission.
There are many more episodes on this four disc package from HBO Home Video and all of them are of outstanding quality. It is hard to believe that this series of films has actually been produced as a TV series. The quality is so good, you would think, each episode is a full blown feature film all by itself, not only by the story, but also because of the dramatic production values they exhibit. Each one has been created by a different director, and thus, each episode has its very own signature and approach to the given matter. Most notable is here certainly Sally Field’s episode which takes a closer look at the lives of the women of the astronauts who defied death to be able to conquer space, leaving their loved ones back home on Earth in constant fear of striking disaster.
"From The Earth To The Moon" is a big box set containing four DVD discs. Three of them RSDL discs, containing 4 episodes each. The fourth disc is completely filled with bonus materials of the most diverse kind. The box is clearly the most sophisticated DVD release to date in a number of aspects. The image quality of the discs is superb without any noticeable flaws despite the four hours of content. The picture is always well defined with plenty of detail and very faithfully rendered, strong colors. Shadow detail is extremely good and the black level on these discs is literally perfect, giving the images a strong and solid look. There is no noise or color smearing anywhere on the disc and compression artifacts were undetectable.
The sound of these discs is equally strong and well balanced, as the visual counterpart. Again, each episode has gotten its own treatment by a different composer, utilizing only one common theme throughout the series. Just as in the visual part, you would almost believe the episodes were stand-alone feature films, because the masterful music score and the breathtaking sound effects editing clearly make this series a landmark in TV history. The Dolby Digital image is powerful, wide and active with very good bass response, resulting in a very lively ambient soundstage. The discs contain the series’ original English language track as well as a Spanish soundtrack. English, French and Spanish subtitles are supplied on all discs as well, rounding up the overall good impression of the box set.
I could go on endlessly about this truly astonishing release. While at first the price tag of $119.98 might be somewhat frightening, this box set is worth every single penny of it.
You get 12 hours of solid entertainment and education, produced in the best possible manner, and an additional DVD stacked with extra material to get into more detail on the subject matter. It is as complete a package as it could possibly get and the overall presentation and production of the DVDs is simply amazing.
Not only does this release show how involving, educating and entertaining TV productions can be, it also shows us what the DVD format is capable of, storing a full 4 hours of interruption-free video on a single disc in the best quality possible. I have fallen in love with this box, and I am sure you will too. It is clearly a release you do not want to miss out on.