Technology, History, and Place

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 3 “We Have Cleared the Tower” and Part 4 “1968”

The third episode of the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, “We Have Cleared the Tower,” is about the return-to-flight mission Apollo 7. More than a year and a half after the tragic Apollo 1 fire, Apollo 7 was the first manned flight of the new Apollo spacecraft, commanded by veteran Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra. The episode portrays the preparations for launch from the perspective of a documentary film crew with access to the launch site and training facilities. The episode ends with (spoiler alert! But it’s in the title) the successful launch of the mission.

As a partial found-footage movie (the footage shot by the documentary crew), the episode does not have a very clear storyline and it fairly meanders toward the inevitable launch. This is not a strong episode for that reason, but there are some interesting meanders along the way. From the Earth to the Moon is, on the whole, rather astronaut-centric, partly because its main source material is the book A Man on the Moon, by Andrew Chaikin. In this episode, the film crew interviews some supporting staff of the space program, including a meteorologist, the astronauts’ nurse Dee O’Hara, a geeky computer technician, and the wisecracking German pad director Gunther Wendt.

In terms of visuals, “We Have Cleared the Tower” is a mixed bag. There are some effective location shots at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral, with the defunct facility digitally de-aged and a CG Saturn 1B rocket inserted into the frame. The compositing isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough for suspension of disbelief. The studio clearly did not build a physical model of a Saturn 1B (possibly because it would only be needed for this episode), and the CG model looks terrible close-up.

While Part 3 is mediocre, Part 4 “1968” is definitely one of the strongest of the series. “1968” is about the flight of Apollo 8, the first to fly around the moon, and the calamitous year in which the mission took place. The episode intercuts staged scenes of the preparations for Apollo 8 with archival footage of the upheavals of 1968: the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Prague Spring, uprisings in France, and the election of Richard Nixon. Use of archival footage can be a crutch or a shortcut around limited resources, but here it is totally effective.

Except for some of the archival footage, the episode is filmed in black and white; color first comes to the frame when the engines of the Saturn V booster ignite at the beginning of the mission. The mission of Apollo 8 is filmed in color, while scenes taking place on the ground continue to be filmed in black and white. The use of color represents the message of the episode: Apollo 8 transcended the problems of the Earth, and in the words of one congratulatory telegram sent to NASA, the mission “saved 1968.”

It was surreal to watch “1968” in 2020 (when I did this rewatch). Both 1968 and 2020 were years of crisis, with at least one common element: civil unrest and violence in the streets. Living through 2020 gave me an idea of what 1968 might have felt like. If only 2020 had had an Apollo 8 too.

From the Earth to the Moon rewatch: Part 1 “Can We Do This?” and Part 2 “Apollo One”

The first episode of From the Earth to the Moon, “Can We Do This?”, narrates the beginning of the race to the moon. The episode opens with Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space (sixty years ago next month) and the Americans’ reaction to it. The episode goes on to portray the first flight of the Mercury program and a couple of selected missions from Project Gemini: Gemini 4 (the first spacewalk), Gemini 8 (the first docking, followed immediately by a malfunction that caused the spacecraft to spin out of control), and Gemini 12 (the last mission of the program). When the episode ends, astronaut chief Deke Slayton calls the astronauts together to brief them on plans for a manned landing on the moon.

Narratively, the episode is a bit of a hodgepodge, but its main purpose is to set the stage for the stories to come in subsequent episodes. The four space missions featured in this episode all introduce a character who will play an important role in one or more of the later episodes. The first Mercury flight is piloted by Alan Shepard, who flies to the moon in the ninth episode. The spacewalker on Gemini 4 is Ed White, who dies in the Apollo 1 fire in the next episode. Neil Armstrong is on Gemini 8 and Buzz Aldrin on Gemini 12; they will be the first men to land on the moon in the sixth episode.

A much stronger episode – one of the best of the show – is Part 2, “Apollo One.” This episode tells the tragic story of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a ground test of the space capsule on January 27, 1967. The episode opens with a well-staged reenactment of the fire itself. The main plotline of the episode revolves around the investigation into the disaster and its repercussions within NASA and North American Aviation, the contractor that built the spacecraft.

The first thing that I noticed when watching these episodes for the first time in more than a decade was the production values. The show was produced for television in the late-nineties, and it looks dated now. Although the production values were higher than for full-season episodic television at the time, they are lower than for TV now. (Within the past ten years or so, TV shows have gotten into a production values arms race. The results are impressive but may not be sustainable.) The episodes are shot in the aspect ration 4:3, to fit on pre-HDTVs. Characters talk about things, or hear them on the radio, rather than seeing the events themselves. Events are also portrayed by stock footage or period photographs, with the show’s actors photoshopped in over the real people where necessary. The production clearly had limited resources, and sometimes it shows.

Two aspects of the episodes compare favorably to TV shows now: the music and some of the effects. The Mercury and Gemini spacecraft in the first episode are portrayed by physical models rather than CGI. Although the compositing isn’t always as good as it could be, the models look great. They have a physicality and even warmth that CGI models never seem to be able to match. As for the show’s music, it is beautiful and stirring and, what’s more, made with real instruments, not computers.

When watching the first two episodes, I noticed some errors that I had never seen before. They are nothing major, but they served as a reminder that I was, after all, watching a TV show made in the late nineties, not real space missions from the sixties. Here are two errors that I noticed:

  • In Part 1, Gemini 8 is over the Indian Ocean and heading east when it spins out of control. This is mentioned in a line of dialogue, and it is also shown on the map in Mission Control. And yet the effects shots show the spacecraft flying over the eastern Mediterranean, with the unmistakable island of Cyprus clearly visible!
  • Part 2 has some nice location shots from the Mall in Washington, DC. One is shot at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial near the Capitol and the other is shot at the other end of the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool. There are a couple of nineties-era cars visible in the background in these scenes.

Introducing a post series: From the Earth to the Moon rewatch

I recently had some time and used it to rewatch one of my favorite shows from when I was growing up, From the Earth to the Moon.

From the Earth to the Moon is a twelve-part miniseries produced by HBO and originally aired in the spring of 1998. It tells the story of the Apollo program’s race to the moon, from the first one-man Mercury launch to the last moon landing, Apollo 17. I was in fifth grade when the show premiered, and I was very excited to see it. My family didn’t have HBO, but I prevailed upon my parents to rent episodes of the show on VHS from the Boulder Video Station. After years of this, I ended up buying the DVD box set of the show with high school graduation money. I watched my DVDs repeatedly in college before eventually losing interest. I hadn’t touched them since college when I decided to revisit the show recently.

The twelve episodes of From the Earth to the Moon were directed by different directors and written by different writers, and the show does not have a central storyline. Each of the episodes is a self-contained story, and the show is more a series of twelve one-hour TV movies than a single twelve-hour movie. Tom Hanks, the executive producer, appears at the beginning of each episode to introduce it (except for the final episode, in which he appears as a character). Nick Searcy as astronaut chief Deke Slayton also appears in each episode, but otherwise the cast changes from episode to episode.

Episodes of From the Earth to the Moon originally aired in pairs, with one opening sequence at the beginning and one set of credits at the end for both episodes. That is how I rewatched the episodes, and it is how I will review them here. I will share my overall impression of each episode, and what I noticed this time that I hadn’t noticed before.

The first part of “From the Earth to the Moon rewatch” goes live here on WillyLogan.com tomorrow morning.

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