After Apollo 11, the first moon landing, there were six more Apollo missions, 12 through 17. The HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon has six episodes after the Apollo 11 episode, and each one deals in some way with one of the remaining six missions of the program. Part 7 “That’s All There Is” is about the Apollo 12 landing, and Part 8 “We Interrupt This Program” is about the near-disaster of Apollo 13.
Part 7 is narrated by Alan Bean (played by Alan Foley), the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 12 and the fourth person to walk on the moon. The episode is narrated in a non-linear fashion, with Bean looking back at the mission just completed while in quarantine with his crewmates on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet after splashing down. Bean tells about the little (and not-so-little) mishaps of the mission, like when the rocket was struck by lightning during launch and when he fried the color TV camera by pointing it at the sun while he was setting it up on the moon. He also tells about some of the humorous aspects of the mission, like how Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon forced the returning moonwalkers to strip down to their birthday suits before he allowed them back into his spacecraft. The episode ends with the astronauts coming out of quarantine after their mission and driving off in their matching Corvettes, the best of friends.
This is a well-written and well-structured episode, and it does a good job weaving real-life elements of the mission (including everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph) into an engaging storyline. Even though it was a much more ambitious mission than Apollo 11, Apollo 12 just wasn’t as exciting to the public because landing on the moon was something that had already been done. The inherently anticlimactic nature of the mission is a central feature of the episode’s plot. When leaving the moon, Bean feels let down and wonders if that’s all there is, but at the end of the episode he decides that spending time with his friends is what life is all about.
Part 7 is the most lighthearted episode in the show, and for that reason it was one of my favorites to watch as a teenager. The humor doesn’t hold up quite as well for me now, though. The three crew members – Bean, Gordon, and mission commander Pete Conrad – are supposedly in their late thirties (Gordon had just turned 40 a month before the flight), but in the episode they seem like college students. There is a lot of corny humor in this show, and this episode is the corniest of them all.
By the way, Alan Bean might have been doomed to obscurity if it had not been for one thing – and I’m not referring to his being the first man to eat spaghetti on the moon. Bean became a prolific painter after his retirement from NASA, using acrylics to portray the entire moon landing program in a vivid visual style. He died in 2018, but his website is still up and running at www.alanbean.com.
Despite the corniness, Part 7 is still a great episode to watch. Part 8, on the other hand, was never an episode that I enjoyed watching. In fact, I almost skipped it in this rewatch because I remembered disliking it so much before, but I talked myself into watching it again because the point of a rewatch is to see how your perception of a show has changed, and that includes the bad episodes as well as the good ones.
Part 8, as I mentioned before, is about the Apollo 13 mission. Here the producers of the show were in something of a bind. They couldn’t tell the story of the mission in a straightforward manner, because that had already been done just three years before in a feature film, Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard (a producer on the HBO show) and starring Tom Hanks (executive producer of the show) as mission commander Jim Lovell. Apollo 13 had a budget of $52 million, and any episode of the show that tried to tell the same story with much more limited resources was bound to be a disappointment.
Instead, the Apollo 13 episode is about TV reporters trying to dig up stories about the mission while it is still in progress. The main character of the episode is Emmett Seaborn, a venerable host from NTC News. He clashes with a young new arrival in the newsroom, Brett Hutchins, who has a more aggressive approach to reporting, ambushing family members of the astronauts or spying on them from a neighbor’s yard. Seaborn and Hutchins have debates about ethics in journalism, but in the end it is the young upstart who prevails and gets to do the coveted post-splashdown interview with mission controller Gene Kranz.
I didn’t like the episode when I was a teenager, and I still don’t like it, but my reasons now are a little different from before. Earlier, I was annoyed that the central story of the episode is completely fictional. There never was an NTC News or an Emmett Seaborn or Brett Hutchins. Why waste my time with a fictional story? Now I don’t feel that the fictional nature of the story is a fatal flaw, but it needed to be done much better than it was. The audience isn’t given much of a reason to care about the dueling TV reporters. What are the stakes? At the end of the episode, when Emmett Seaborn stalks dejectedly down a corridor in Mission Control after losing his chance to interview Gene Kranz, it isn’t a great emotional moment. It’s mainly just boring. Emmett Seaborn works as a background character in other episodes (and he is played absolutely believably by Lane Smith), but he can’t carry an episode on his own.
Another disappointing aspect of the episode is the production values. As the episode takes place entirely on Earth, there are no effects shots and only a few sets or locations. The astronauts in space are represented only by transmissions from the spacecraft, but they sound unconvincing. When the transmissions are playing, mission updates are typed onto a black screen in an ugly computer font.
This was surely the cheapest episode to make in the whole series. The quality of the photography stands out as being particularly poor. Everything looks dingy and poorly-lit, even most of the scenes shot outdoors. At the end of the episode, mission controllers cheer when the Apollo 13 capsule lands safely, but the scene is depressing because this same moment looked and felt so much better in Apollo 13.