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The Space Race Hits Streaming, Portraying ‘Quintessentially American’ Courage


With the difficulties and disruptions of 2020, it’s no wonder that interest in leaving the planet has skyrocketed. While SpaceX and other space tourism companies are still working out details, Netflix and rival streaming services have got the final frontier covered. Their quest for new subscribers fuels several TV series exploring space — some in wildly fictional ways, and others with historical grounding.

Since May, Netflix has launched three space series: Steve Carell’s “Space Force” comedy didn’t make quite the impact it strived for, “Challenger: The Final Flight” retells the explosive 1986 tragedy in docuseries format, and emotional drama “Away” starring Hilary Swank blends elements of both with a science-infused futuristic narrative.

Meanwhile, HBO Max has ignited interest with “Raised by Wolves,” a dystopian take on societal tyranny from executive producer Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” “The Martian”) and Amazon Prime has ventured into space via “The Expanse,” with a fifth season in production. CBS All Access has served up one “Star Trek” spin-off after another, while Disney Plus has made “Star Wars” its cornerstone — the anticipated second season of the buzzy space opera serial “The Mandalorian” will premiere Oct. 30.

This weekend, Disney Plus broadens its horizons with “The Right Stuff,” an eight-episode remake of the 1983 film set at the height of the U.S.-Soviet Union space race. A big-budget scripted series in collaboration with National Geographic and Warner Bros., season one retells how the Mercury 7 astronauts were chosen, trained, and propelled into the great unknown.

Executive producer Mark Lafferty, who guided NatGeo’s hit Albert Einstein show, revealed in a recent panel how they seek to strip away the gloss and idolization of those heroic figures. “Instead of just telling [the] tick-tock of what actually happened, we really want this to be a family drama,” said Lafferty. “That means the actual families of these astronauts, their wives and children, and the ‘family’ of NASA scientists and engineers.”

Relying heavily on journalist Tom Wolfe’s bestselling book, “The Right Stuff” promises to delve deeper into an era that has defined the American imagination for decades. When viewed alongside Netflix ensemble drama “Away,” which speculates about an international joint mission to Mars, it presents curious similarities and contrasts.

The Race to Be First in Space

During months of research and preparation, the cast and crew of “The Right Stuff” traveled to where the first spaceflight missions began: Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral on the Florida coast. Actor Michael Trotter (“CSI: Miami”) who portrays Gus Grissom, the second man in space, recalled how visiting the iconic site informed his role.

“I remember standing on that pad [and] craning my neck to make out the minuscule capsule above,” said Trotter. “These absolutely insane people were willingly going into it and then being shot in a ballistic missile to space. It’s a physical representation of the magnitude of these daunting challenges.”

The fortitude of the seven test pilots-turned-astronauts in facing such peril defined what it means to have the “right stuff.” Series producer Jennifer Davisson calls this courage a “quintessentially American” trait. “It’s equal parts brave, crazy, and scary,” she said. “It’s rare that you meet people brave enough to put themselves at risk, in this case for discovery, innovation, and just to prove that they can. These seven guys thought they could do it, and all for different reasons.”

Getting to know the divergent personalities of “The Right Stuff,” viewers see where the popular sci-fi trope — conflicting characters uniting for a shared cause — has its origin. This version focuses on how the families left waiting and hoping for safe return played just as big a role. Similar to “The Crown” hit series, with its peek behind the curtain at world-shaping events, viewers enter the daily realities of astronauts’ lives.

LIFE Magazine photojournalists famously portrayed such icons as John Glenn relaxing in their shag-carpet family room with wife and kids, then driving off in a ’59 Chevy. Series producers are out to deflate such nostalgic mythmaking. “The story being sold to the American public was: ‘Look at these gods,’” said Lafferty. “Our show still respects these people, as we present them as normal human beings with fears and grievances.”

Even while the whole world watched their mission from afar, “The Right Stuff” spotlights lighter moments along the way — such as the true story of Alan Shepard receiving his acceptance letter into the Mercury Program days late and missing the first meeting.

Carried ‘Away’ On Mars Mission

Premiering a month ahead of its Disney-NatGeo competitor, ten-episode series “Away” on Netflix trades on similar themes: wondrous night skies alluding to man’s place in the universe, families separated by many millions of miles, and the drive to go where no one has gone before — this time, a mission to Mars.

Oscar-winner Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”) stars as a working mom, albeit one who has to leave her family for three years on a spaceship. This imagined international mission finds her leading a crew with members from China, India, Ghana, and Russia, with all the attendant cross-cultural conflict at play.

Inspired in part by a GQ article about astronaut Scott Kelly, who lived on-board the International Space Station for a year starting in March 2015, the series brings the realities of spaceflight up to present-day technology.

As a fictional series, “Away” lacks historical context — a weakness for viewers seeking the insight of actual events, though a strength as it establishes plot, characters, and stakes right from the get-go. Executive producer Jason Katims, known for emotional dramas such as “Parenthood,” evidently had a strong hand in the moving pilot (in keeping with unfortunate trends on Netflix, families should be warned of an unnecessarily explicit scene in the pilot’s first 15 minutes).

Where most reviewers agree it falls apart is in flexing out as an ensemble drama. Subsequent episodes flashback to the stories of each crew member, with character development seemingly reduced to a sketch of past experiences. And while the prevalence of video calls feels apropos to life in 2020, isn’t entertainment supposed to be an escape from annoyances?

Will the Space Missions Continue?

Both series are hoping to get the green light for a second season, with “Away” producers eager to send Swank’s astronaut commander on another mission. Moving beyond the Mercury 7, the team behind “The Right Stuff” plan to spotlight a wider array of characters if given a season two.

“Whether it’s Katherine Jonson, whom people have heard of from ‘Hidden Figures,’ or Ed Dwight, an African-American man who was meant to be one of the first astronauts, we’re excited to tell those untold stories that people just don’t know about,” said producer Davisson.

In an era when most entertainment has shifted to streaming, “The Right Stuff” offers a new take on historic events that shaped our world. Although it’s unlikely to generate “Mandalorian”-level buzz, the scripted drama expands the limited slate of TV series on Disney Plus.

Producers contend series themes are particularly relevant today. “It seems as though, in our country, we’ve lost our step a little bit,” said Lafferty. “From our Constitution on forward, we do big stuff here. This story reminds us how people [with] competing motivations, desires, and conflicts came together and found a common purpose.”

“The Right Stuff” premieres Oct. 9 on Disney Plus. “Away” is now available on Netflix.