A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
On December 11, 1972—45 years ago next month—Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed on the moon, while their Apollo 17 colleague Ronald Evans orbited above. Cernan and Schmitt spent three days gathering mineral samples in the Taurus-Littrow valley, while testing for signs of past volcanic activity. Then they returned to the Command/Service Module, and flew back to Earth, returning December 19. As of this writing, this was the last time that any non-fictional humans have journeyed to the moon and walked on its surface.
On May 10, 1998—20 years ago next spring—HBO aired “La Voyage Dans La Lune,” the final episode of From The Earth To The Moon, a 12-part miniseries that would go on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. Directed by Jonathan Mostow and written by executive producer Tom Hanks, “La Voyage Dans La Lune” stars Hanks himself as Jean-Luc Despont, a fictional assistant to Georges Méliès during the making of the 1902 silent science-fiction classic A Trip To The Moon. Scenes from that set are interwoven with a mockumentary about the Apollo 17 mission.
In a way, this episode of From The Earth To The Moon—like the 11 that came before it—also represents a remarkable confluence of imagination and effort. The difference is that it marked a beginning, not an end.
Why did we stop going to the moon? That’s the question “La Voyage Dans La Lune” tries to answer, directly and indirectly. When Méliès made his film, the very concept of space travel was the stuff of pulp fantasy. As From The Earth To The Moon cast-member Dave Foley says in the featurette on the miniseries’ DVD, “There was no way we were ever not going to go the moon. It’s like a child: It’s not real until you’ve touched it.” But his castmate Peter Horton provides a corollary to that sentiment when he describes his reaction to watching the first moon landing on TV in 1969: “I felt a certain sadness over the loss of the mythology. It suddenly became… rock.”
There are two voices in “La Voyage Dans La Lune” that serve as a kind of Greek chorus to the episode’s parallel stories. One is Hanks’ Despont, who talks about what it was like to work alongside a genius (“When things were not so bad, he was not so bad,” he shrugs), and describes the optimism that pervaded Méliès’ company right they learned that Thomas Edison’s goons had pirated A Trip To The Moon, and were making an illegal fortune off of it in the United States.
The other voice belongs to Stephen Root, playing real-life NASA flight director Christopher Kraft, who speaks frankly about the disproportionate risks and rewards of manned space flight. To the NASA team in Houston, the Apollo 17 mission is, even to this day, renowned for its efficiency. Cernan and Schmitt covered a lot of ground on three extended trips in the Lunar Rover, making excellent use of their time during an era when the government and the American public were increasingly fretting about the cost of the Apollo program. Root as Kraft talks a lot about the practical concerns of 17, but also says that the relative smoothness of the trip only made him worry all the more, because it’s when people start taking success for granted that catastrophic mistakes occur. The longer you’re on the job, Kraft says, increases the likelihood that something will go wrong,
The two main voices in “La Voyage Dans La Lune” have a similarly down-to-earth, detail-oriented tone, yet represent the episode’s two somewhat oppositional ideas. In both the Méliès’ scenes and the scenes on the moon, there’s a lot of healthy respect for simple awe. The turn-the-century French filmmakers have big dreams, as both artists and entrepreneurs; and while things don’t pan out as intended, Méliès and his company still leave behind something remarkable. Meanwhile, up in space in 1972, Cernan (played by Daniel Hugh Kelly) takes advantage of every spare moment—even when he’s supposed to be sleeping—to ponder where he is, and appreciate how rare and incredible an experience he’s having.
If only the people back on Earth had been as amazed. Although Apollo 17 produced some of the clearest color video footage in the program’s history—delivered to TV sets in as close to real time as the satellite technology of the time would allow—coverage was largely limited to a few minutes every day on the various news shows, as opposed to the wall-to-wall reporting on earlier NASA missions. The world had seen men on the moon. The novelty had worn off.
To some extent, both “La Voyage Dans La Lune” and From The Earth To The Moon as a whole are about how the same mentality that makes miracles happen is often responsible for those feats of wonder being undervalued. In the DVD featurette, Tim Daly (who played Jim Lovell in a handful of episodes) talks about spending time with the real astronauts as research, and how they could make even a near-death experience sound boringly technical. (“We knew we were just a few seconds away from reaching our physiological limits.”)
Similarly, on the A Trip To The Moon set, the passion and playfulness of Méliès is contrasted with the doggedness of his crew, who are more concerned with hitting their cues. Whenever Despont begins cranking the camera, he yells, “Start the grinder!” It’s hard to think of a more apt way to describe the drudgery of creation.
It may take a “no biggie” attitude to execute something as complicated as making a movie or landing human beings on the moon. But do we all have to be as jaded as the people pulling the strings?
Consider From The Earth To The Moon itself. At the time that it aired, it was a major event: for television, for cable, and for HBO. The channel was about to lose The Larry Sanders Show, its most acclaimed original series. Oz had only been around for a year. Sex And The City would debut that summer. The Sopranos was nearly a year away. The revolution in original cable programming—and the subsequent rise of “prestige TV”—was still on the horizon. So an expensive HBO miniseries from Tom Hanks (and his co-producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) was a huge deal in the spring of 1998.
Today, the arrival of a From The Earth To The Moon would still be highly touted, but would also be greeted by its potential audience as just something else to feel guilty about letting pile up on the DVR. We see big-budget shows all the time now, often created by and/or starring Hollywood A-listers. People are working very hard every day to bring us sophisticated stories told with polish and panache, but we’re not as impressed as we used to be. We’ve seen it.
Times change, though, and it’s not inconceivable that someday soon we’ll be in a television landscape exclusively populated by small-scale, low-budget shows, consigned to subscription services we can’t recall if we’ve paid for or not. Perhaps then we’ll look back at the era of Game Of Thrones and Mad Men the way that Hanks on the From The Earth To The Moon DVD looks back at the Apollo program, geeking out over the actual NASA artifacts he remembers from the lunar missions he watched as a teenager.
I’d like to think that as this moment in time slips past, we’ll recognize what we’re losing, and that we won’t treat any big changes the way so many treated the the end of the Apollo 17 mission—as a likely temporary pause in an increasingly irrelevant endeavor. Much like when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon for the first time, Eugene Cernan gave a speech when he removed his feet from the surface for the last time. But even he didn’t think his farewell would be forever.
As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come—but we believe not too long into the future—I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.
That’s a touching moment in “La Voyage Dans La Lune.” It’s even more moving when Kelly as Cernan talks about how that last day on the moon went by so fast. The crew was tired, the to-do list was crammed, and before they knew it, Houston was hustling them back onto the module, to return to lunar orbit and then jet home.
The world wasn’t really paying attention to what they were doing anymore. The “made for TV” part of the Apollo mission was tanking in the ratings. But they’d still been doing good work, and it was bittersweet to see it all come to an end so unceremoniously. They wanted just a few more minutes, or at least one last chance to look up at the Earth and reflect on how far they’d come. Because as someone once said, it’s hard to say goodbye—even to a television show.