Picks and Pans Review: Space

updated 04/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/15/1985 01:00AM

CBS (Sunday, April 14, 8 p.m. ET)

Depending on your perspective, this is a miniseries bigger than A.D., that self-anointed "television event of 1985." It's longer by an hour, adding up to 13. It's a far sight better, and though this may not be the greatest story ever told, it's still great.

Based on one of James Michener's many mega-novels, Space dramatizes America's efforts to get away from it all, as seen through the eyes of a handful of fictional characters who orbited around real people such as John Glenn, LBJ and Wernher von Braun. It begins with the rocket scientists of World War II Germany—who, in the words of one of them, "dream of other planets while we drop bombs on this one"—and ends with an extra Apollo mission to the moon. The mini has moments of magnificence, of powerful TV with good acting and addicting drama. Space also has plenty of moments in the middle that fizzle like a rocket powered by a can of Reddi-Wip. Pffft. But still this is a hearty recommendation.

The first sight you see is our deceptively small planet. And the narrator, Laurence Luckinbill, says: "If we could watch from space, Godlike...." The narration, coupled with genuine and faked news-reel footage, is sometimes effective, lending a sense of reality to the series. But most times the unworldly prose that Luckinbill has to read is enough to make your eyes roll to the heavens: "an apostrophe in the Earth's inexorable movement from West to East." Gag me with a Saturn V.

Then you're introduced to the people Michener created: James Garner is a wartime hero who saves men from his sinking ship and becomes a U.S. Senator and a champion of the space program. Though his character slumps midway through the series, Garner does not; he is as solidly appealing as ever, masculine without macho. He's a guy so nice he can have an affair without seeming like a lech, a politician anybody would vote for. Here's an actor who looks like a President.

Michael (Cabaret) York turns German to play a von Braun clone, one of about 100 Nazi scientists secreted into the U.S. to get us off the ground. York and German actress Barbara (Berlin Alexanderplatz) Sukowa as his wife add tremendous class to the mini with their restrained performances. The script, however, doesn't give them a chance to bare their guilty consciences—his for helping Hitler flatten London, hers for latent anti-Semitism (a character defect that's never developed, only dumped on you when it's needed for a subplot). Still they make an intriguing couple. Next, Bruce Dern is amazingly likable as the scientists' mother hen; he throws himself into the part and flies with it. Ditto for Beau Bridges as a hotdog astronaut.

But Space is really Blair (Continental Divide) Brown's show, for she has to—and does—carry most of the weight of the series on her steady (and silken) shoulders. When you first see her dolled up in '50s and '60s chic, you can't help but think that she's still playing Jackie in Kennedy. But she's not. Here she's cast as a smart woman from a small town who becomes a Washington power in her own right. She's the common thread through the major characters' lives: becoming a leader in the space program, marrying an astronaut and sleeping with Garner. Brown grows with the part, galumphing along in saddle shoes, then gliding by in strapless gowns, learning how to wield influence as a woman in a man's world without ever turning soap-opera shrewish. She's awfully good. Unfortunately the man she marries, Harry (Master of the Game) Hamlin as a sweaty rocket jockey, is plain awful; when he appears weightless, it looks like his natural state. Hamlin finally perks up at the end, but only after he and Brown—and you—have suffered through too many whine fests about the state of their relationship with a capital R: "Sometimes I don't think you know who I am." That kind of pap.

Finally, meet Michener's last major creation, David (George Washington) Dukes as a flim-flam man and TV preacher who seduces Garner's daughter, among many others. Dukes tries his best with a character that simply doesn't belong here. The producers should have had the guts to kill him off, for he never becomes a part of the story and he steals time and attention from more compelling characters. An astronaut is killed early on, and you've barely been introduced to the guy. Dern's son wears Mommy's dresses, turns out gay and dodges the draft, but you hardly see him until the end, when it's too late to care; like Sukowa's anti-Semitism, his quirks are dumped into the story, not developed. G.D. (Robert Kennedy and His Times) Spradlin plays the too-sleazy publisher of Middle America magazine, who sells space like a cheap Florida condo. This should have been a key part of the story: showing how TV and an eventual overdose of hoopla diluted the romance and mystery of outer space. But this too is cast off like a first-stage rocket. Other characters who get short shrift: Susan Anspach as Garner's icicle wife, Melinda Dillon as Dern's well-meaning wife and Stephanie (Eye to Eye) Faracy as astronaut Beau Bridges' gum-cracking wife.

The most disappointing parts of Space are those that owe their existence strictly to Michener's imagination—like poor David Dukes' character and most of the other bad guys. The best parts are those that hold closest to the truth or at least our memory of it: Garner as an ideal American man, Brown's portrait of emerging feminism and space as a symbol of innocence and ingenuity amid the turmoil of the '60s. This mini captures the mood of a time when kids made plastic models of space capsules, when the world stopped what it was doing to watch TV pictures from on high, when we saw the last of the great ticker-tape parades. The Right Stuff—the book more than the movie—documented the extinction of the American hero in space. Space doesn't try to do anything so profound. After all this isn't Tom Wolfe, only Michener; it isn't a movie, only a 13-hour miniseries. All Space tries to do is entertain and impress. To entertain, it gives you romance with a healthy dose of sex, plus moments of chair-tilting excitement. To impress, it does not rely just on special effects; happily, they're conserved to add majesty to rocket launches and space strolls. In the end this big bird flies. So far this is the TV event of 1985. (The rest of the series airs nightly through Thursday.)

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