The penultimate episode of the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, “The Original Wives Club,” is the show’s most unique. While all the other episodes focus to a greater or lesser extent on male astronauts living in a men’s world, “The Original Wives Club” is about the women who were married to these men. The episode follows the wives of the “Next Nine,” from their arrival in Houston as their husbands prepared to fly the first Gemini missions, to the end of the Apollo program a decade later. Each of the nine wives gets a storyline: Marilyn Lovell supporting her husband as well as she could; Susan Borman struggling with alcoholism; Pat White dealing with anxiety and the death of her husband in the Apollo 1 fire; Barbara Young getting divorced as her husband prepared to fly to the moon on Apollo 16.
Although the episode doesn’t have a strong narrative, it is surprisingly effective. The episode uses a fashion show put on by the Next Nine wives (presumably around the time that they moved to Houston) as a framing device to introduce the characters. I remember finding this part soooooooo boring when I first saw the episode in middle school, but now I can see that it works from a narrative standpoint.
Given the producers’ decision to make each episode of the show a standalone TV movie about a specific theme, it makes sense that the astronaut wives would get their own episode rather than their storylines being integrated into plotlines throughout the show. (While the astronaut wives do appear in other episodes where the plot calls for them, some of the episodes are an absolute sausagefest.) Unlike most of the other episodes of the show, this one was directed by a woman, Sally Field (who also appears in one scene as Trudy Cooper).
Lacking a strong narrative throughline, the episode does drag in a few places, but there are also some great scenes. My favorite scene in the episode shows the two Pats (Pat McDivitt and Pat White) going to Mission Control to talk with their husbands in space during Gemini 4. Here the women are intruding upon a men’s realm, and mission controllers stand awkwardly as the women enter because they don’t know how else to respond.
The final episode of the show is “Le voyage dans la lune,” which is mainly about Apollo 17, the last moon landing, but it also has a storyline about the production of what may be the first science fiction film (and the namesake of the episode) in France in 1902. The Apollo 17 storyline has recreations of scenes from the final moon landing, as well as the actors wearing age makeup to portray the astronauts and mission controllers in the present day (i.e. the 1990s), looking back on their experiences in Apollo.
An episode with such divided attention could have been a disaster, but it works surprisingly well. Although it would have been nice to see the real Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt, and Chris Kraft on screen in this episode, it made sense to use the actors from a continuity standpoint. (Gene Cernan and Chris Kraft both died fairly recently. Jack Schmitt is still alive.) This aspect of the episode is about memory, and how we think about the past that we experienced.
One weak aspect of the episode is how it explains the cancellation of the Apollo program—or rather, doesn’t explain it. In the show, the cancellation comes out of nowhere and is totally inexplicable. The 1990s Gene Cernan complains that we quit going to the moon just when we were getting good at it, and the audience is left feeling that the decision to stop going to the moon was irrational. It certainly does seem irrational from an astronaut-centric viewpoint, but it doesn’t in light of the broader domestic context of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As T.A. Heppenheimer explained in his excellent book The Space Shuttle Decision (available for free from NASA), the crises of the late 1960s (including some of those portrayed in the episode about 1968) caused the United States to shift its focus away from international affairs and toward domestic concerns. Flying missions to the moon was an incredibly expensive undertaking, and the US government could scarcely keep funding the missions in light of the ballooning costs of the Vietnam War and a renewed domestic focus on civil rights reform and social programs.
The 1902 storyline takes up a relatively short amount of the final episode’s running time, but it is time well-used. The storyline is narrated through another phony interview, this time of an assistant to the filmmaker Georges Méliès as he produces his short film about a trip to the moon. (The actual film is now very much in public domain, and there are several versions on YouTube. Here is one of them.) The assistant is played by Tom Hanks himself. The storyline seems to be autobiographical. Tom Hanks’s character worries that the film won’t work, that there are too many cuts and too much glue and the whole thing will just fall apart. I imagine Tom Hanks having much the same worries about his own film about travel to the moon. Will it hold together or fall apart?
On the whole, it holds together. There are some weak points, and a couple of weak episodes, but From the Earth to the Moon still holds up 23 years after it first aired.