TV Review: Moon dramatisation as riveting as chalk news graphics

By Michele Hewitson

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James Marsters as Buzz Aldrin (left) and Daniel Lapaine as Neil Armstrong step on to the moon.
James Marsters as Buzz Aldrin (left) and Daniel Lapaine as Neil Armstrong step on to the moon.

The trouble with moon telly is that most of the drama takes place on the telly. It was the first grand television spectacle. Even the Pope, we were told, tuned in from his summer residence on a set purchased for the occasion - despite Italian television being available only in black and white. Not that that would have mattered. We got to see those grainy shots from the moon again in last night's latest dramatisation, Moonshot, made for the 40th anniversary of that first boot on the moon.

So in Moonshot (Prime), as in most telly dramatisations of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we are reduced to watching TV which shows people watching the moon landing on the TV. What funny TV sets we had back then. How quaint and low tech they were. How quaint and low tech we were. Look, no remotes! The TV news demonstrated the journey to the moon using a blackboard and chalk.

It somehow came as no surprise to those of us who didn't know this (can it be true?) that if it hadn't been for the fortuitous discovery of a felt tip pen, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have never made it back from the moon. There was an early clue in a story - "some is dramatic fact; some is dramatic licence" - that the felt tip pen was going to be an important part of the plot development. Said pen was found floating about in the capsule. Aldrin said if nobody else wanted it, he'd have it, and tucked it into his pocket. This seemed over-laboured at that particular moment. Why on earth would the script writers make so much of a tiny pen, when there was so much of the bigger story to yet cram in?

To create the bigger, a ha!, moment later, as it turned out. That moment, when the two moon walkers discovered the ascent engine switch had broken off, should have been one of real dramatic tension, whether it was one of fact or licence. But there were few moments of a ha! tension, or of real and compelling drama. It felt like a cheap plot device, even if true.

Perhaps we know the story too well. So the way to tell it might have been through the characters - Armstrong, Aldrin and the unfortunate Michael Collins, who got the task of whizzing around the moon while the other two got the glory.

But we already knew that Buzz was a bit barking. I didn't know he kept a monkey for a pet. Collins: "What sort of a grown man keeps a monkey for a pet?" Well, if you had to guess ...

We already knew Armstrong was a reticent sort who has always shunned publicity. Buzz to Neil: "It's not enough to go to the moon, you've got to do it on television. You don't like that side of it too much do you?"

Neil: "For some reason they want to know how everything feels."

Later, some fool asks Buzz how Neil feels about being picked to be the first man on the moon. Buzz: "How does Neil feel about anything?"

The real dramatic contrast came from the moments of high American pomp and the blokey, space jocks' fear of showing emotion. The President spoke to the men in space: "because of what you have done the heavens have become part of man's world".

The real bits - the shots from the moon, from inside command control, of those instruments that appear less sophisticated than a very old digital alarm clock, of Walter Cronkite on the news - looked made up to look 40 years old.

The fiction looked shiny and new, despite the period TV sets and the wives with beehive hair and cigarettes. It made for an uneasy mix of fact and licence and resulted in a competent but hardly inspiring retelling of that amazing story.

- NZ Herald

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