James May on the Moon Review
You may not know this but, forty years ago this July Apollo 11 landed on the moon. An anniversary that has been barely remarked upon these past few weeks...
Anyway, one more contribution to the bandwagon is this personal documentary by Captain Slow in which he is taken to the edge of space in the back seat of a U-2 spyplane and meets a few of the surviving Apollo astronauts along the way. The title is a little misleading.
The programe opens with a quite extraordinary sequence as May sits in the passenger seat of a car hurtling down a runway as the driver talks down the U-2 aircraft landing in front of him. Right in front of him. If the car were any closer it'd be a re-enactment of the first episode of Thunderbirds. Apparently it's standard procedure. From that point on May takes us through a potted history of the Apollo project, visiting the sites associated with it and talking to some of the now-retired astronauts as he prepares for his U-2 flight. He personally illustrates some of the extreme physical endurance testing the astronaut candidates undertook, which includes the obligatory trip on the 'Vomit Comet' to illustrate the joys of weightlessness.
May is an engaging, knowledgeable and articulate presenter. Now 46, he has vivid childhood memories of the moon landings and aided by his undisguised awe of the men he visits, he helps to communicate vividly the personal experiences of many of the astronauts, some aspects of which have never been publicly aired before. The programme culminates with his trip in the U-2 and he makes it quite clear what a special and unique experience it is and his sheer thrill at seeing the curvature of the Earth is infectious.
However the programme is all a bit gee-whizz and concentrates primarily on the triumphalist aspect of the Apollo programme. He barely mentions the Soviet space effort, completely ignores von Braun and his shady Nazi past and doesn't contextualise any of the events within that turbulent period of American history. It's a bit like those old tech articles Eagle magazine used to run in the 50s trumpeting The Achievements of Science. What is quite sobering now though is looking at the plentiful archive footage from the 60s and seeing the array of exclusively White, male faces. In contrast with the modern scenes in NASA and the USAF where May is attended to by a racial kaleidoscope of people, both male and female. Many of whom are utterly baffled by this droll eccentric Englishman.
It seems the BBC is grooming James May to be the new face of popular science, the new James Burke even. Since his first appearance as one of the presenting triumvirate of Top Gear, he has fronted or co-fronted several single documentaries and factual series. He is at risk of becoming as ubiquitous as Stephen Fry but where Fry is the Oxford don on his lofty perch, May is the scruffy physics teacher everyone likes and as long as he rations his appearances we may not grow tired of him too quickly.
The main feature lasts just over 59 minutes and is presented in BBC standard anamorphic widescreen – 1.78:1. There are six chapters which can be accessed from a menu. The picture, as you would expect from a big populist documentary like this is superb and well-presented. This is only a 90-minute DVD so there is plenty of space to fit it all in.
The soundtrack is clear and, for once, the music is neither too intrusive nor superfluous.
James May At The Edge of Space. 29m.
Not a 'Making Of', more a cobbling together of some of the unused footage from the main feature. This shows in more detail the physical preparation May undertook before he went on his U-2 flight. Originally aired on BBC4 as a companion piece to the main feature on terrestrial BBC, it's basically just more of the same.
Both main feature and extra are subtitled comprehensively in English only. However, as is more and more the case nowadays, occasional typos and transcription errors creep in and it's amusing (just once) to watch the same sequences in both films with different interpretations of what's being said.
As documentaries go, this avoids the worst modern excesses – no fancy onscreen graphics, whooshing sound effects or thundering music and it's all the better for it. But if you want an in-depth survey of the Apollo programme then you can do a lot worse than buying the boxed set of HBO's From The Earth to The Moon (noticeable by its absence from the schedules right now). But make sure you get a second-hand copy of the original Region 1 edition and not the dreadfully-cropped widescreen version we were palmed-off with on Region 2.