Shows like Netflix’s ‘Away’ and NatGeo/Disney+’s ‘The Right Stuff’ are whisking us off to outer space while we’re stuck at home.
When you think about it, being on a spaceship and being quarantined at home during a global pandemic are nearly the same thing. You’re in an enclosed area that you’re not allowed to leave unless it’s absolutely essential; if you want to go outside, you have to wear protective gear; you’re cycling through the same four meals every week the preparation of which you’ve gotten down to a science; you’re breathing recycled air; there aren’t enough bathrooms for everyone. Of course, there is one major difference: We, the mud-bound citizens of Earth, are stuck in our homes waiting to be told it’s safe to go back to the office again, whereas astronauts are heading to a place few human beings have ever been before.
The good news for the rest of us is that we have an embarrassment of riches to paw through, if we’re looking for astronaut-focused entertainment to dig us out of our doldrums. With the absence of cosmic blockbusters in theaters this year, it’s television that’s doing the heavy lifting, and with the cold weather just beginning to set in for most of us Americans, we’re staring down the barrel of a long, boring winter—but not if the spacefarers of TV have any say in the matter. Whether by coincidence or by some subtle interdimensional directive we haven’t been able to perceive yet, Fall 2020 is all about astronauts, from a fictionalized imagining of a manned mission to Mars to a dramatized retelling of the first human beings to slip the surly bonds of Earth.
In September, Netflix premiered one of its most exciting and emotional new series, Away, which stars Hilary Swank as the commander of a crew of astronauts in the near future who leave Earth with hopes of setting foot on our closest, reddest neighbor. The show splits its time evenly between tense action scenes often drawn from the accounts of real astronauts, and deep examinations of the psychological toll a trip of that magnitude, so far away from home and loved ones and anything familiar, would take. Emma Green (Swank) and her crew face the challenges of a years-long journey to another planet while fighting the strain of missing their loved ones back home, while those loved ones deal with battles of their own that are no less diminished for their being on Earth instead of in space.
Challenger: The Final Flight, also on Netflix, is a docuseries in four parts that catalogs the planning and aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, one of the great American tragedies that took the lives of all seven people aboard, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was selected by NASA’s initiative to bring private citizens to space. It’s a more sobering look at the dangers of space travel and of safety concerns overtaken by an organization irresponsibly cutting corners to achieve greatness, and a chronicle of the human desire to go places and do things that have never been done before. The Challenger disaster reminds us that ambition can be deadly, but also that the allure of space travel attracts people from all walks of life.
In October, Disney+ and National Geographic debuted an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, an account of the very humble beginnings of the American space program and NASA’s handpicked crew of hotshot test pilots all vying to be the first to leave the atmosphere. Though it had the potential to be pretty rote, The Right Stuff series is a fascinating and endlessly entertaining glance at a faithfully fictionalized version of the lives of men like John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), and Deke Slayton (Micah Stock): Men whose names are forever a part of the mythos of the 1950s and ’60s Space Age.
CBS All Access has launched the third season of the fantastic Star Trek: Discovery, which takes Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the crew of its eponymous starship further into the future than it has gone before, nearly a thousand years past the Federation-Klingon War into a time when the galaxy is more fractured than ever. As always, the mission of the Discovery—like the mission of Starfleet ever since the very first iteration of Star Trek—is to extend a helping hand into the cosmos for whoever needs it, uniting those who have been separated for centuries, or who were once enemies, or who have never met, unfurling an ever-hopeful vision of the future in a time that feels at its bleakest.
In November, there’s Moonbase 8, Showtime’s comedy about a trio of wannabe astronauts, played by Fred Armisen, Tim Heidecker, and John C. Reilly, who, instead of going anywhere exciting, are stuck playing at being spacemen while testing out a design for a Moon habitat, substituting an Arizona desert for lunar soil and driving each other nuts while living in their cramped quarters. Each of them wants, desperately, to go “up there,” whether to fulfill a family dream, be a hero in a loved one’s eyes, or simply to find a purpose for himself that he can’t find on Earth. And in December, Netflix will release The Midnight Sky, starring George Clooney and Felicity Jones, a post-apocalyptic drama about an astronomer on Earth who tries to save a crew of far-flung astronauts from coming back down to a ravaged planet. The film is an adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight, whose characters contemplate the value of a life’s work when there’s no one around to see or benefit from it.
It’s merely a coincidence that all of these stories are coming out within a few months of each other in the strangest, most anxiety-ridden, and terrifying year in recent memory, and yet it seems appropriate that they’re giving us the time and space, however fantastically, to hope for the future. At the very least, it’s a gift from a universe that’s been giving the rest of us quite the beatdown lately. In May, a pair of astronauts were launched by NASA aboard the SpaceX Dragon 2 and docked with the International Space Station, rendering American orbital spaceflight possible for the first time since the shuttle program ended in 2011. Elon Musk is determined to set up a base on Mars. To leave Earth and find a way to live in space is an infectious desire and an achievable goal. Neither our fictional adventure stories nor we ourselves can keep from tilting our heads back and imagining what kinds of incredible things are waiting for us just out of sight.
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