Space Odyssey : Voyage to the Planets


BBC, 2 60-minute episodes

Space Odyssey : Voyage to the Planets

This fictional "documentary" of a six-year mission to explore the planets has been dubbed by some "Walking with Astronauts". That is rather unfair: it is considerably better (not that that is at all difficult !).

[crew of the Pegasus] We follow the five astronauts of the good ship Pegasus as they visit Venus (for a couple of hours), Mars (for a few weeks), Io (briefly), Saturn's rings, Pluto, and a comet. The faux-documentary style means the trip is intercut with interviews during training, and of mission control during the flight.

The weightless scenes in the spacecraft (true free-fall filmed in a Russian cargo plane), and the low gravity scenes on the planet surfaces, are done well. The planetary surface mock-ups look very convincing, too ("Mars" is the Atacama desert in Chile). Amusingly, as they are landing on Venus one of the crew exclaims that the surface "looks just like the radar pictures"; [exploring Mars] indeed it does! But the asteroid belt, Saturn's rings, and the exploding comet felt rather over-dramatic.

The programme is presumably an attempt to show the science, because often an interview back at mission control is accompanied by an annoying little URL at the bottom of the screen. I haven't followed up the URLs, so I don't know if they explain why they occasionally seem to forget about the communication delay, or what are the orbital mechanics consequences of delaying their departure from the comet by three weeks, or why the little graphic of Pluto's orbit appears to have the planet inside Neptune's orbit when the crew visit it.

Probably the best bit of the entire programme is the insistence that you need people in space, not just robots, because they can use their skill and judgement, especially when things go wrong (which they do quite a lot here, for dramatic tension): finding the old Venera lander on Venus and kicking the lens cap out of the way is a nice touch. And right at the end, they say, we could have done this earlier. Yes, let's!

Rating: 4

[ unmissable | great stuff | worth watching | mind candy | waste of time | unfinishable ]

reviewed 20 November 2004