"Space" takes up a lot of time. This is the time-"Space" continuum. It continuums for five nights. That's 13 dour air hours of aerospace epic and pink pop schmaltz, about two parts stiff right stuff to eight parts fluffily wrong. Viewers will find that in the course of this voyage they do not leave the pull of gravity; indeed, gravity is everywhere, in the black-hole views of a small planet's efforts to reach outward and in the keyhole views of the hot-trotting dramatis personae.
Adapted by Stirling Silliphant and executive producer Dick Berg from a fat novel by James A. Michener, Big Daddy BookBucks himself, "Space" mixes factual and fictitious people and events in that maddening mini-series way, and for much of its screen time tries actually to ignore the subject of space in order to consider the presumably more fascinating topic of sex. It's not just earthbound, it's bedbound.
The mini-series begins its long stroll moonward with a three-hour opener tonight at 8 on Channel 9 and continues each night through Thursday. It takes the American space program from very early beginnings, the recruitment of German rocket scientists in 1944 as the war wound down, to the early '70s and a fictitious Apollo 18 expedition to the dark side of the moon. In between there is a veritable triathlon of sexual encountering and every now and then a gaseous blast of cant from narrator Laurence Luckinbill, who says "inexorably" a lot.
"Space" is so long that just about every character in it gets to be a drag before it's over, and that includes Luckinbill with his cement-heavy dronings about "this minor planet" in "this least ordered of galaxies." The saga is introduced with the Earth turning (inexorably, of course) and the introduction of the major characters, "five separate human beings," although in the last chapter that's revised because then there are six.
Fake people interact recklessly with real people. At one point Luckinbill mentions Lyndon B. Johnson and Norman Grant in the same breath while talking over real newsreels and phonied-up newsreels. LBJ did exist, as we know; Norman Grant, however, is a fictitious liberal senator played by James Garner, who looks pained through most of the show, as though his girdle were killing him.
In tonight's early scenes where the 57-year-old actor plays a boyish naval hero during World War II, it probably was.
One way to tell whether someone is real or a fake in this teleplay is this: If the person hops into the hay with somebody else, both are fakes. The sexless souls are real.
The four other major characters are Harry Hamlin as pilot John Pope, who eventually becomes an astronaut; Michael York as German rocket scientist Dieter Kolff, among those imported to work on U.S. space projects; Bruce Dern as Stanley Mott, who recruits the Germans and eventually runs the space program; and David Dukes as Leopold Strabismus, born Martin Scorcella, a philandering con man who parlays sleazy charm into a career as a TV evangelist.
Although the narration always speaks of "man" conquering space and "man" waddling around the moon, there are women in these men's lives: Blair Brown as the bright young Senate aide who marries Pope but has an adulterous affair with Sen. Grant (she seems to be the sixth person materializing as a major character at the end); Susan Anspach as Grant's loony-tuney shrew of a wife (by the fifth night, Anspach has turned into Vicki Lawrence as Mama on "The Carol Burnett Show"); and Barbara Sukowa as Liesl, Dieter's liebchen. In a scene tonight so hokey that it feels like something out of a World War II propaganda melodrama, little Liesl submits to the advances of a lecherous Nazi to prevent the execution of her Dieter-kins.
Silliphant does not want to back away from the grandiose or the grandiloquent here. After all, he is telling the tale of a great era of grand designs. But it's the sudsy stuff that dominates the mini-series, in part because CBS fears female viewers will not watch a TV program about science and space exploration. There are so many prosaically standard soap-operatic scenes, you wonder how Silliphant ever stayed awake while writing them.
The operative network thinking appears to be that we of the audience will not long tolerate anything really serious about the race to space and our place in the cosmos and so what we get is mock-serious pomp generously laced with miscellaneous whoopee.
Symptomatic of the sex/space schism of the entire production, we find ourselves in Part 1 leaping from newsreels of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his nuclear-age declaration that "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," to a shot of Dukes having his chest smooched by a foxy doxy in the sack. In Part 4, Brown confesses infidelity to Hamlin during a post-tryst chat while on TV an announcer is saying, "America has taken a giant step toward the moon." Sillipant is nothing if not resolute about keeping the his very commercial ide'e fixe alive. In Part 5, a young astronomy student named Sam Cottage looks through a telescope and discovers potentially cataclysmic sun spot activity. He is accompanied by a female companion who entices him away from his vigil by saying, "Cottage, what's it gonna be -- Armageddon, or sex?"
Silliphant is trying to contrast the rigors of day-to-day human existence with the glorious call of the big beyond. But it doesn't mesh. One minute humanity is moving inexorably into the unknown, the next Hamlin and Brown are rolling inexorably about in another of their many love-making montages, one of which features a fairly funny video pasta of disembodied rippling limbs. "We've never done it in a bed before," she says to him before one of them, ripping open his button-fly pants.
Much later she bluntly summarizes the affair she has had with Garner's Sen. Grant: "You and I occasionally wrestle in the mud like animals, and that's all." What a romantic! This follows Dick Anthony Williams as a black activist lecturing the senator on civil rights and the lack of black astronauts. The film takes pains to touch all bases. It touches so many bases it becomes quite a pain. Base touching is a pretty facile exercise anyway. In the end, a great deal is said about nothing, and nothing much is said about anything that matters. Joan Collins might as well saunter in and start modeling moon gowns.
There is a subtext, to use a flattering term, about manliness and womanliness and changes in the definitions thereof. Some of this is used to justify sex scenes. From a dutiful mention of Rosie the Riveter in Part 1 through the chronicle of Brown's rise as a Senate staffer, and the ensuing complications when her estranged astronaut husband is chided for failing to maintain the proper familial image that is a part of the clean-cut myth, "Space" keeps the leitmotif alive for all 13 hours.
Others in the cast include Beau Bridges as likable astronautic hot-dogger Randy Claggett; Melinda Dillon as Mott's wife, as squeakingly wholesome and dull as he is; Martin Balsam as a rumpled old senator who keeps urging Garner to sell out like a good politician should; G.D. Spradlin as Tucker Thomas, dictatorial editor of Middle America magazine; and Maggie Han as Cindy Rhee, a Korean-born journalist who sleeps with as many of the astronauts as she can and has a major affair with the married Claggett.
This square-jawed, wholesome, pillar-of-humanity Stanley Mott character, so unbelievably played by the miscast Dern, turns out to have a gay son in Part 3. Not just a gay son but a gay surfer son. Not just a gay surfer son but a gay surfer draft-dodger son. It's all set up for Dern to make El Biggo Speecho when he visits the kid in Montreal during the Vietnam war. Guess what; Silliphant comes out four-square for love and understanding among people of all persuasions. He drops in on the topic of anti-Semitism a few minutes before that, when the German scientist's wife rankles slightly, then relents, at the thought of their son marrying a Jewish girl. There is a speech defending freedom of the press in there somewhere as well.
Part 3 also contains the mini-series' largest dose of '80s lingo, though it is set in the early '50s: "quality of time," "It's not happening for him," "being supportive" and "lighten up."
Garner looks unhappy saddled with the Grant character, a Goody Two-Guccis with the ultimate Liability Wife. Silliphant keeps returning to Dukes as the evangelist character as if building up to some terrible confrontation or crisis, but this is one plot string left dangling limply and inconsequentially at the conclusion; the character was only there so a few digs could be taken at the Jerry Falwells of the world. The ending is a big downer that the writers attempt to redeem with a transparent uplifter from voice-on-high Luckinbill. A space launch is "a monument to man's sic ingenuity," says Dern; "Space" is not.
There is one funny scene. The German scientists have been sequestered in Texas and their wives shipped over from Germany. The locals have done some objecting and protesting and it is decided to make all the Germans American citizens pronto. To facilitate that, they are all put on a bus as if newly arriving from Mexico. An immigration official addresses the group and asks, "Do you all solemnly swear that for the past several months you've been living in Mexico City?" The ceremony is complete when a chorus responds in German-accented unison, "Ja!"
One distinction of "Space" is the niftiest and most dazzling opening credits ever put onto a TV movie. They are a variation on the titles from the first of the "Superman" films, with names of principals assembling and dismantling against an outer space backdrop. Very pretty and impressive work by Dan Curry, who designed the sequence, which is given added impact with the Miles Goodman-Tony Berg musical score.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration cooperated in the venture to the extent of permitting filming at certain NASA locations, including the mission control at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that was used for the Mercury and Gemini missions, a NASA spokesman said last week. The agency's posture was "cooperative but without a great deal of involvement," he added. A NASA disclaimer in tiny type appears at the end of each installment: "The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's cooperation and assistance does not reflect approval of the contents of the film or the treatment of the characters depicted therein."
Segments are introduced with a now-trite device, black and white newsreel montages accompanied by songs of the period that then fade into color and dramatization. There are two directors, Joseph Sargent and Lee Philips. One of Sargent's favorite touches is to have the cinematographer plop the characters off in a distant corner of a room so that the floor and the furniture in the foreground become the focal point of a scene. It becomes a distraction, but then maybe that's just Sargent's way of visualizing the title. It's his space.
There's no question this is an inordinately handsome production. It's impressively ample. Monumentalness is usually a quality lost on television, what with the relative tininess of the screen, but here one can see the occasional awesome sight, include a fastidious reproduction of a moonscape in the final chapter. It's too bad that against the vast canvas is played a series of interlocking tales that seem arbitrary and hackneyed and wholly inadequate to the spiritual essence, or even the practical competitive essence, of the quest to travel in space, one of the loftiest quests since human beings first crawled out of the sea, or the trees, or whatever scientists this week are saying we first crawled out of.
With its eye fitfully on the heavens and its mind fitfully in the gutter, "Space" is, finally, an insult to every kid who ever looked through a telescope and dreamed brave dreams of hallowed realms. Instead, it's for that other kid in us -- the one who aimed the telescope not at the stars but at the next-door neighbor's bedroom window.