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Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets (2004)
Writer and director: Joe Ahearne

review by Patrick Hudson

When I was a kid, spaceships and space travel fascinated me. I was a little too young to pay attention to the moon landing, but I remember the Soyuz-Apollo link up in 1975, the Viking Mars landing in 1976 and the first space shuttle launch in 1981 very well. My childhood was filled with highly illustrated (and highly optimistic, as it turned out) books covering various aspects of space travel; I had dozens of books on the subject, from the sober to the fanciful and scoured the Porirua Library for anything else space-related I could find. The BBC's lavish production Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets brought these memories flooding back. The clean-cut, international crew of the Pegasus are direct descendants of the (mostly white-skinned and male) astronauts imagined in such brilliant detail by the artists in those children's books. Instead of watercolours and acrylics, however, the BBC has a palette of incredible CGI effects to create the planetary vistas of their six-year journey from Venus to Pluto and back to Earth.

The programme is presented as a fly-on-wall documentary following the mission's progress from the ship and mission control on Earth. It takes in landings on Venus, Mars, the moons of Jupiter Io and Europa; a trip through the rings of Saturn; a landing on Pluto, and finally a meeting with a comet at the edge of the Solar system. All the way we follow the trials and tribulations of the mission as it survives unexpected setbacks and the scientists and crew deal with the rigours of six years in space.

As well as the reference books of my youth, the film is highly reminiscent of its near namesake, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The one-mile long Pegasus is similar to the Discovery, and the shots of the astronauts swimming across the rotating hatchways echo Bowman and Poole moving around their own ship. The shots of the ship orbiting Jupiter and the use of cool classical music in the background must be a deliberate gesture toward 2001, and I guess it's a tribute to Kubrick (and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull) that the earlier film still holds up against its younger namesake, for all the advances in technical know-how. Perhaps what has changed is not so much the ability to produce convincing space-scapes, but the ability to do so within a BBC budget.

Unlike Kubrick and Clarke's mystical quest the BBC's Space Odyssey keeps its feet very firmly on the ground, and there is not a monolith in sight. The crew has a strictly scientific brief and at each planet the focus is on the technical challenges of getting around and the nature of the scientific experiments. As the mission unfolds the actors provide little knowledge soundbites in their roles as the mission scientists, although it has to be said that the delivery doesn't always convince - these guys just seem a little too glib to be real planetary scientists and biochemists!

To avoid things getting too stiff, the programme makers don't miss an opportunity to add a little drama. Every planet provides unexpected challenges that nearly prove too much for the years of planning and training. On Earth, the flight surgeon and chief scientist bicker over how far they can push the astronauts without endangering their lives; the crew are given distinct personalities and their emotional reactions to the stress of the long journey are not ignored. There are also some nice dramatic touches, such as when the Russian and American shake hands on Pluto, the mission's furthest extent, as if declaring the space race a draw.

The drama is not wholly successful, however, and although the perils lend the film some excitement, the crew never emerge as more than black woman, white woman, American guy, Russian and cancer guy. This is exacerbated by the fact that over the six years in zero-g they never really seem to change. None of the men grow a beard, or even appear unshaven, no one changes their hairstyle or loses or gains weight. It's rather eerie and robs the characters of any believable humanity. The ground control scientists are similarly unchanging and have a particularly thankless task as the primary info-mouthpieces. There are some pretty distracting rhubarbing extras in the background of ground control at times, as well.

That's kind of missing the point, however, as the film's real appeal is in its depiction of the realities of space travel and the environmental conditions on each planet. In this regard, it's hard to fault. The special effects scenes are composed with great skill and an eye for breathtaking vistas. The ship looks great and the amazing planetary horizons - be they accompanied by volcanoes, dust storms or ice-mountains - have a real depth and sense of life.

This is a thrilling production that stirred my lifelong love of space travel. It is suitable for all ages, although it was first broadcast at the curiously late time of nine pm, when a good section of the population that would have adored this (bookish boys and girls between the ages of eight and 12) will have been in bed. Of course, in this age of video that doesn't mean it'll miss its audience, and it's already available on DVD just days after broadcast, presumably hurried out in time for Christmas. If you missed this and have an interest in the science of space travel, then why not treat yourself and put it in your stocking for Christmas morning? It'll beat The Sound Of Music, and your nephews and nieces will adore it.

The BBC Region 2 + 4 DVD release (cert. PG) has Dolby digital stereo sound and English subtitles. Disc extras include: behind-the-scenes footage, documentary featurette, science fact files, and a photo gallery.
Space Odyssey - Voyage to the Planets

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