by Douglas Messier
Deadline reports Disney+ has canceled The Right Stuff, the poorly received television adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s classic book of the same name. Unless Warner Bros. Television, which produced the series, can convince another network to fund a second season, the woebegone show will become a historical footnote about a real historical era.
I managed to catch several episodes recently, and I was profoundly unimpressed. It made going to space a rather dull affair. What were the problems? Let me count the ways.
No bucks, no Buck Rogers. The show had the cheap look of a low-budget TV production. I don’t know what they spent on this, but it wasn’t enough. On the other hand, it might have been better if they had spent nothing at all on the show.
Right turn into irrelevance. In The Simpsons, there was an episode of Itchy & Scratchy titled (of all things) “The Beagle has Landed,” in which the cat and mouse are headed to a fireworks factory when they run into a new character for the cartoon, an in-your-face, surf boarding, guitar playing dog named Poochie (voiced by Homer).
“When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” cries Milhouse as Poochie’s antics go on and on. They never do, negating the entire purpose of the show-within-a-show predicated on cartoonish violence.
In The Right Stuff, the seven astronauts are selected and then the program takes a profound right turn into melodrama focused on rivalry and family issues. They seemed to take forever to get to the space stuff. By that time, I had kind of lost interest.
Who dat? Other than the actor playing Glenn (who had too much hair), the other six astronauts resembled each other. Is that Wally? No, it’s Gordo. But, I’m pretty sure that other guy is Deke. You think so?
In the movie adaption, actors Scott Glenn, Ed Harris and Charles Frank did resemble Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, respectively. And they were fine actors to boot. The other four actors were distinctive enough in their looks and characters that you could tell them apart.
Where’s Chuck? The legendary test pilot — breaker of the sound barrier in level flight, the most righteous possessor of the Right Stuff — is nowhere to be found. Since Yeager was such a big part of the book, it made me wonder what exactly the filmmakers were adapting.
Wolfe’s book focused on the courage and skill it took to ride rockets, and how the space program upset the pyramid all the rocket aces were ascending. Another theme was the contrast between a military supersonic flight test program and a space program based on national prestige. The third theme was the astronauts’ fight to be taken seriously as pilots (‘A monkey’s going to make the first flight.’)
The absence of Yeager and these themes robbed the TV series of a lot of its conflict and forward momentum. To compensate, the series really had to evoke the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, especially since that conflict is 30 years in the rearview mirror. Why was Project Mercury and landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s viewed as being so vital to the nation? The series never really answered that question properly.
The Right Stuff series instead became the story of the competition between Shepard and Glenn to take the first flight, with five other pilots who all kind of looked alike thrown in for good measure. And not an especially well told one.
Historical Inaccuracies. The movie took a fair number of liberties (no, Yeager was not recruited to fly the X-1 in Pancho’s bar, the Mercury capsule wasn’t designed by the German rocket team). The series had more than a few inaccuracies.
The one that really caused me to throw my hands up in exasperation was the rendering of NASA’s popped cork fiasco. The first unmanned test of the Mercury-Redstone system in November 1960 resulted in the flight of the escape tower; the rocket and spacecraft remained on the pad. Mercury’s parachute opened, threatening to topple the rocket in a fireball if the wind caught it.
The TV series had one of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team leave the blockhouse with a shotgun to shoot some holes in the rocket to relive pressure in the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. He is stopped at the last minute by flight director Chris Kraft, who ran a road block driving over from the control room.
To the uninformed, the fictional scene probably seemed dramatic enough. To anyone familiar with rocket testing (i.e., the space geek audience), the sight of two highly experienced NASA workers going anywhere near a rocket after what had just happened was the ultimate WTF? moment. As in what were the writers thinking?
In reality, a member of von Braun’s team did make that suggestion. An appalled Kraft nixed it. They decided to do nothing. The winds remained light, and a valve on the LOX tank popped open once the rocket’s batteries ran down. After the oxygen evaporated, a crew was able to drain the fuel and safe the vehicle.
A missed opportunity. The series had enormous potential to tell a dramatic story about a fascinating era that has become covered in a heady mix of fact and myth. It could have gone much deeper into the history than the movie, and even corrected some of the things the film and the book got wrong.
But, it didn’t. Barring a decision by another network to pick the show up, it never will.