When in 1957 the first man-made object in space was the sowjet satellite Sputnik and less than four years later the first human in space not an astronaut, but a cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin, the American government really began to worry. Although almost one month after the Russian spaceflight Alan Shepard became the first American in space, the USA needed much, much more to win the space race against the Sowjet Union. Only a few weeks after the first spaceflight of an American, President John F. Kennedy made his historic speech in which he set the goal to let American astronauts reach the moon before the end of the decade. This was the beginning of the Gemini-Apollo program, which would reach one of the most ambitious goals ever attempted in only nine years: a manned moon landing.
The way to the moon proved to be extremely dangerous and expensive for the Americans, but there was nothing more important to gain ground against the Russian advance in spaceflight. The political pressure was enormeous, a large part of the cold war was literally fought in space. In spite of the initial successes, in the long term the USSR was not able to keep pace with America and the results were transmitted live on television all over the world: in July 1969, the first humans set foot on the Moon, and they were American astronauts.
The story of the most daring undertaking ever attempted in human history had been taken on as a pet project by actor Tom Hanks in the mid-1990s. The actor had been a lifelong "closet astronaut" and was overjoyed when Ron Howard had chosen to cast him as Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, the dramatization of the most serious spaceflight incident of the Apollo program. After the movie had become a huge success and earned a lot of good reviews, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer wanted to take their joint fascination of space exploration to the next level - but to put the whole history of the Gemini-Apollo program into one movie was simply impossible, so the filmmaker and the actor set their eyes on to a different medium.
It was the American pay-tv channel HBO who expressed interest to make a television series about the moon race, something which had not yet been attempted on the small or even big screen. Philip Kaufman had magnificently adapted Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff about Project Mercury in 1983, but apart from Al Reinert's For All Mankind, the first and only collection of NASA footage and astronaut interviews ever to reach the big screen, the Gemini-Apollo era had never been dramatized. This was to change in the tune of a $68 million dollar budget for twelve hour-length episodes under the title From the Earth to the Moon, to be shot over the course of three years with multiple writers and directors. Tom Hanks also founded the new production companies, Clavius Base and Go Flight Inc., cooperating with Ron Howard's and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment to tackle the enormeous scope of the project.
The series was mainly based on A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin's detailed chronicle of Project Apollo and, like The Right Stuff, was a docu-drama, a dramatization heavily based on real events. Ten directors and eleven writers, among them Tom Hanks, Al Reinert, Lili Fini Zanuck and even actress and writer Sally field, created the twelve episodes, which each told separate, standalone stories. Instead of only recounting the missions, the series devoted itself to many different themes like the problems of spaceflight, the news reporting and even the struggles in the NASA administration, bringing not the technology, but the people behind it into the foreground. There was no real criticism of NASA given the close cooperation with the space agency, but even the negative side of the space race was not completely ignored by highlighting the many obstacles and problems the space race had.
The production values were on the highest level for an American television series and did not need to hide from the much bigger cinema competition. Overly enthusiastic patriotism and too much emotions were largely absent, but being an American production, those elements were, of course, still somewhat present. The focus was heavily on the human factor, even in the episodes with a more technical nature. The authors took great care not to bombard the viewer with complex technical facts, but present the problems of spaceflight in an easy to understand manner. An enormeous amount of research was put into the scripts to make them as authentic as possible - especially because Tom Hanks insisted that there would be no made up stories and everything had to be backed up by facts. Dave Scott, veteran of Gemini 8, Apollo 9, Apollo 15 and the seventh man to walk on the Moon, was closely integrated into the team of scientific advisors and was present almost every day on the set, making sure that every little nuance in the acting and the sets and props were authentic.
The versatility of the series stems mainly from the many different perspectives the stories are told - From the Earth to the Moon shows the space race not only from the point of view of the astronauts, but also from the scientists, flight directors, the astronaut's families and even the news reporters. One whole episode was even dedicated to the construction of the lunar lander, another one to the reporters, the latter born out of the necessity to tell the flight of Apollo 13, which was already the subject of the movie, from a different angle. The writers made sure that there was not too much overlap between The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and that every self-contained episode had something very new to offer even for spaceflight enthusiasts.
The scope was, however set between a short summary of Mercury and Gemini up to Apollo 17, which meant that the later Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz missions in Earth orbit were only briefly mentioned.
There was no way to assemble an all-star cast with a budget of barely 70 million dollar for twelve episodes, but although the cast was primarily comprised of mostly less-known actors, the fresh faces do not distract from the plot. The actors had been remarkably well chosen and captured the personalities of the astronauts and other characters amazingly well without resorting to just imitate them. Standing out especially as the astronauts were Ted Levine as Alan Shepard, Tony Goldwyn, Bryan Cranston and Cary Elwes as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Dave Foley as Alan Bean, Tom Amandes as Jack Schmitt and Nick Searcy as Deke Slayton, who appears in ten of the twelve episodes. Only one of the astronauts was played by two actors because of scheduling problems - Pete Conrad was briefly portrayed by Peter Scolari in the first episode, but in a later episode by Paul McCrane.
The "ground personnel" was also wonderfully chosen with Stephen Root and Dan Butler as flight directors Chris Kraft and Gene Krantz and in a special episode Matt Craven as engineer Tom Kelly, who was responsible for designing the landing module. Like in The Right Stuff, the astronaut's wives also played major roles in the stories and were also perfectly cast, since they also had one special episode devoted to them. With the exception of the episode's director Sally Field, who also played Trudy Cooper, and JoBeth Williams as Marge Slayton, the roles were mainly cast with relatively unknown actresses like Wendy Crewson, Rita Wilson, Kirstie Horton and Jo Anderson - but they all did a magnificent job portraying their characters in a very natural and convincing way.
There were not many fictional characters in From the Earth to the Moon and for those that were used, there was a very good reason. To bring the events behind the production of television news to life, a news moderator was created, who appeared in half of the episodes and created the single consistency in the series apart from the astronauts: Emmet Seaborn, played wonderfully by Lane Smith, was heavily modeled upon Walter Cronkite, but was not only a simple imitation of America's most beloved tv journalist, and more a creation in his own right. In the episode revolving around news broadcasting, Seaborn also has a feitsy younger rival, played as a real hippie rebel by Peter Horton. Tom Hanks himself also appears at the start of every episode in a short introductory speech and also took the role of George Meliés assistant in the unusual last story about the making of the famous movie interspersed with spaceflight history.
The brilliant camera work of british cinematographer Gale Tattersall was complimented with some archive material from NASA, but From the Earth to the Moon also took special pride in having its very own newly created special- and visual effects and a very authentic production design. The series was mainly filmed in Florida to make use of the original locations at Cape Canaveral, but some scenes took the film crews also to California. The moonwalks had been filmed inside large soundstages at the Disney-MGM-Studios with meticulously designed moon terrain, while the interiors of the spacecrafts and the mission control rooms were recreated with help of the originals and historic blueprints - even one of the unused lunar landers featured in the series. The team of production designers and art directors, led by Richard Toyon, Kitty Doris-Bates and Seth Reed were all novices in their field, but their detailed work helped to bring the original Gemini and Apollo spacecraft back to life. The costume and wardrobe department had their own challenges with creating not only authentic 1960s fashion, but also new spacesuits after the original, but long obsolete designs with the help of loaned originals from NASA.
The real task of the visual and special effects teams were the rocket launches and spaceflight sequences. While George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic was not involved in the making of the series, eleven companies closely worked together to provide the most authentic recreations, many of which were still made with miniature models, because CGI was still not good enough in the mid-to-late 1990s and more expensive than the traditional method. CGI was, however used, to integrate the model shots into real footage, to combine them with detailed matte paintings and to create a three-dimensional moon surface. The effects sequences were not quite on the level of Ron Howard's Apollo 13 movie, but considering the relatively low budget were able to reach a surprisingly realistic quality and stood out as one of the most fascinating aspects of the series.
The enormeous lenght of From the Earth to the Moon made it necessary to split the composing work between several musicians - Michael Kamen, Mark Mancina, Mark Isham, Marc Shaiman, Mason Daring and James Newton Howard all tackled the difficult task of setting the moon race to music and had amazing success with it. While the focus was primarily on rousing orchestral arrangements with strong melodies, there was also a suprising amount of original jazz compositions and a carefully prepared selection of contemporary pop songs. The title tune with its signature trumpet melody was composed by Michael Kamen and had only the fault of appearing a little too often in the series.
From the Earth to the Moon is the most fascinating narrative ever made of the Apollo program, brilliantly balancing between suspense, drama and even humour, making it one of the best series in American television history. As a follow-up and companion to Apollo 13, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer had, together with an amazing team of directors, writers and actors, found the ideal compromise between a big-screen and a television production, making From the Earth to the Moon actually a collection of twelve hour-long movies and not just a simple tv-series. The filmmakers had made their dream come true in a most spectacular way, but a continuation of the concept into the Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz and Space Shuttle era has never materialised even fifteen years after the series was created.
- Can we do this? - In 1961, the USSR succeeds with the first manned spaceflight, far overtaking the American space program in just one leap. President John F. Kennedy then sets an ambitious plan to bring American astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. Before the huge distance to the moon can really be traveled, a lot of technical and human difficulties must be overcome. (59:46)
- Apollo One - During the preparations for Apollo 1 in January 1967 the worst possible catastrophe happens: an enormeous explosion in the space capsule, caused by a spark in the pure oxygen atmosphere, takes the lives of the three astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. It is a heavy shock for the whole country and almost jeopardizes the whole Apollo program. (59:56)
- We have cleared the Tower - One and a half year and six unmanned flights after the Apollo One catastrophy, Wally Schirra, Don Eisele and Walt Cunningham are the first astronauts to go into space with the new generation of spacecraft. The preparations are accompanied by a team of young journalists, who are not afraid of asking unconventional questions. (59:34)
- 1968 - It is not a good year for America. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy are in the public's mind, but the space exploration program makes huge progress: Apollo 8 is the first human flight around the moon, which is less plagued by technical than entirely human problems. (53:56)
- Spider - For a successful Moon landing not only a powerful rocket had to be constructed, but also a lander, which got the nickname Spider. The Lunar Module was constructed by the Grumann Aircraft Engineering Corporation led by Tom Kelly, who tells his story of how his company had designed and constructed the Spider. (56:04)
- Mare Tranquilitatis - In 1969, John F. Kennedy's dream comes true - after years and years of intensiv preparations any many setbacks, NASA succeeds in bringing the first humans to the Moon. Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin are the first to explore the Moon's surface, but Michael Collins, the third astronaut, has to remain in orbit as the whole world watches in a live television broadcast. (55:08)
- That's all there is - Al Bean, Pete Conrad und Dick Gordon have to fill the footsteps of their predecessors with Apollo 12 and travel to the moon without major incidents - but not everything goes completely like planned. From lightening hits over broken television cameras to a moon dust problem a lot happens during this mission, but in the end the most unusual crew of astronauts arrive safely back on earth. (49:04)
- We interrupt this Program - Apollo 13 begins as a completely normal spaceflight and the third moon mission is almost routine, until a technical defect endangers the lives of the Astronauts. Only when nearly a catastrophy happens, the previously uninterested media begins to wake up, opening a rift between traditional reporting and sensational journalism. (48:48)
- For Miles and Miles - Alan Shepard had been the first American in space, but because of an inner ear disease, he was not allowed to fly anymore. But new medical procedures allowed him to take a second chance, which he finally got with Apollo 14 - with an age of 47 years, Shepard became the oldest astronaut in space and on the moon. The Moon landing was enormeously successful and became famous not only because of the first colour television broadcasts from the Moon, but also Alan Shepard's golf experiment. (49:40)
- Galileo was right - Apollo 15 had a very special assignment: to collect geological samples from the surface of the moon. The moonwalking astronauts Dave Scott and James Irwin were extensively trained with hands-on geological lessons and their mission had maybe the greatest scientific value of them all, but at this point the premature end of the Apollo program due to budget cuts was already a done deal. (55:10)
- The Original Wives Club - The conquest of space had been exclusively reserved for men, but their women and families back on earth had their own problems to conquer. They not only had to deal with long absences of their husbands and fathers, but also with the constant fear that they would not come back, all the while representing a perfect picture of an astronaut wife in front of the media. (56:58)
- Le Voyage Dans La Lune - In 1972, Apollo 17 was the last flight to the moon, but seventy years previously the french filmmaker George Méliès already had a unusual vision of a journey to the earth's satellite. (59:00)
After the American television premiere in spring 1998, From the Earth to the Moon had been released as a lavish DVD-Boxset in the USA only half a year later. Outside Region 1 the series had first been released by the German studio Mediacs, who unfortunately only had access to the German television video masters from the Premiere channel, but nevertheless produced an excellent DVD set. These two remained the only editions available of the series until HBO had re-released the American boxset with a remastered 16:9 image in 2005, which also became available in England and Australia for the first time in 2006 and also replaced the previous German edition in 2007. There has also been a Region 1 budget re-release in 2009 with a slightly different packaging, but still containing the same five discs as the 2005 release.
The DVD-Box reviewed in this article is the American HBO re-release from 2005 with the title Signature Edition. It comes in a very elegant packaging - the inner five-fold digipack is housed in a sturdy cardboard box with a removable upper third, sporting a nice lenticular round image of the earth changing into the moon. The cardboard banderole with the silver signature edition banner looks a bit cheap in comparison and it is astonishing that the box does not have any inscriptions on the sides, looking a bit anonymous on the shelf.
The episodes were split into three each per disc, while a fifth disc exclusively contains the extras, which have all been carried over from the previous release save the DVD-ROM materials. While there had been no new extras produced and there have been some controversies about the aspect ratio change, the new image transfer with its radically improved quality makes an upgrade really worthwhile especially if you still own the old German boxset and have the possibility to get one of the new releases at a low price.
No Blu-Ray has been announced yet, but there seems to be a high-definition video master in existence or maybe HBO wants to do some more work on the series before it is released in the next generation video format. Until then the DVD is perfectly fine.
For the DVD re-release of 2005, HBO had re-transferred From the Earth to the Moon in high definition to make the series fit for the future in the 16:9 image format, but also to improve the quality of the 1998 video masters. Except from some slight problems relating to the aspect ratio change, the result is impressive and elevates this television series into a real cinematic experience which still looks great on larger screens.
From the Earth to the Moon had been made from about 1996 to 1998 at a time, when many television companies were beginning to change their movie and series productions from 4:3 to 16:9. HBO had also seen this trend coming and made sure that the series was shot completely in the Super35 format with both 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 framings. Because of this, the new 16:9 transfer was not simply cropped from the earlier 4:3 version, but actually a completely new image composition, which was mostly successful, but also had some minor problems.
With the larger Super35 negative, the re-framed transfer had the advantage of not loosing too much vertical image, but gaining a lot in width, making a proper widescreen framing possible. Sometimes the framing looks a bit tight on the top of the image, but even in the 4:3 version many heads are bumping the top of the frame and are even partially cut off, so that this also happens in the 16:9 version, although the image was extracted mainly from the top two-thirds of the Super35-negative.
The comparisons of Episode 1, Episode 3, Episode 6 and Episode 7 show, however, that not all of the new transfer was taken from the Super35 negative with more image width: apparently some parts of the special effects were finished with digital compositing and not on film, so that they had to be extracted from the old 4:3 master, although even these more often than not leave the impression of having been prepared for a 16:9 aspect ratio. Only in a few inserts like the newspaper article in the first episode the new framing position is not optimal, but in return almost all photographs look much better in the 16:9 version. The only occasionally used archive material was also reformatted from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1, but this is only really noticeable in direct comparison. In addition, the positions of the text descriptions have all been adapted to the new framing.
The excellent image quality more than makes up for the slight discrepancies in the widescreen framing, because the new transfer is technically impeccable. The film sources were in great shape and have even fewer dropouts than on the old DVDs - there is practically no more dust und dirt visible. Film grain has been completely left intact and is visible in almost every scene, making the new DVDs finally look like a film projection and not a video presentation. Some scenes, especially in the third episode, have been filmed on 16mm and those have even more natural film grain. There is no visible instability in the image.
Sharpness is also dependent on the material, but the majority shot on 35mm looks brilliant - the noticeable softness of the old video master from the previous DVDs is completely gone in favour of a very detailed image, using the full resolution of the DVD format. The 16mm material and the simulated television sequences are of course intentionally less sharp, but even on the latter there are actual screen lines noticeable which before were invisible. With the exception of a few matte shots, even the special effects look amazingly better better. The colour timing has also been drastically improved in many episodes. The distinct green-brown hue of the earlier masters have now been replaced with better skin tones and really white spacesuits. Brightness and contrast also have been completely new balanced and the previous problem of the "dirty" looking film grain is also not visible anymore.
Except for the minor framing problems, HBO has done everything right with the new transfer of From the Earth to the Moon - the image quality could not have been improved any better and the series simply looks much better in widescreen.