When you think of big budget BBC documentaries, Walking with Dinosaurs normally comes up top. While it was a big hit, I wasn’t too fond of it because I didn’t think the CGI looked quite as good as Jurassic Park and hence looked a bit too shiny and unrealistic. However, their latest documentary, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, is very impressive, on par with Apollo 13 in terms of cinematic quality. This is hardly surprising since spaceships are easier to do than dinosaurs, but they still deserve a lot of praise for getting it right.
Space Odyssey is one of those strange beasts, a fake documentary of a real six-year ‘grand tour’ of the solar system, taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter and other planets on the spaceship Pegasus. It works well – I’ve always been of the opinion that in order to get people’s attention, you need to tell a story. You can have all the lush visuals in the world, you can even have poetic dialogue, but there’s something lacking without a sense of drama and personal involvement. Hence Space Odyssey, with its banter between the astronauts and conflicts in mission control, makes the whole production a lot more compelling.
The science can’t be faulted either. The producers have made the wise decision of not trying to cram too many facts in and instead concentrated on the salient points, e.g. Venus is so hot you couldn’t stay there for long, solar flares are really dangerous, the Martian atmosphere is very thin, etc etc. Granted, it is rather unlikely that if you conducted a grand tour of the system you’d spend a little more than the few days on Mars that the crew of the Pegasus did, but to be fair, you have to balance scientific accuracy with the very real chance your audience might fall asleep. Besides, I think there’s a real opportunity to make a big budget fake Mars mission documentary in the future.
My website New Mars has a great interview by Stu Atkinson with the producer of Space Odyssey, Chris Riley, about the show. It’s a good thorough read and goes into much more depth than any other interview you’ll find about the programme.