Is it a film? Is it a documentary?
It's both, or perhaps neither: Voyage to the Planets and Beyond
is filmed in the documentary format, but what it documents is
fictional. The film (or documentary?) covers the hypothetical
six-year voyage of a manned spacecraft that visits Mars, Venus,
Jupiter's moon Io, the rings of Saturn, an asteroid, and finally
Pluto. We see the "astronauts" deal with various
challenges, and get to see what scientists think the various planets
might really look like, based on what we know from space probes.
Voyage to the Planets and Beyond
(original British title: Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets)
is undeniably a polished production, and it presents its material
seriously and with visual appeal. In theory, if you appreciate the
way that it's done, the program is a good way to learn about the
planets of our solar system in an enjoyable way. But despite the
solid pedigree of the film (I'm usually a great fan of BBC
documentaries), it just never clicked with me.
What it comes down to is that I'm
never quite comfortable with programs that blur the lines between
documentary and fiction. Yes, it's based on fact, and tries to be as
accurate as possible. But we don't actually know what the experiences
that Voyage to the Planets and Beyond will be like, though we
can take a good guess; the film has to make certain extrapolations.
That's fine, but how do we know what aspects of what we see are
accurate, and which are invented?
This isn't something that bothered
me in Walking with Dinosaurs, which I loved; perhaps the
difference is that Walking with Dinosaurs (and its successors)
is presented in a more documentary manner, with a voiceover narrator.
There's no attempt to fictionalize it or create characters and an
overall story, and so I feel that there's less pressure for
excitement over accuracy; I also feel (perhaps wrongly, I suppose)
that the documentary format puts the emphasis on the real information
rather than the "story" that could be told in that
Perhaps that's at the root of my
dissatisfaction with Voyage to the Planets and Beyond: I
simply don't care for "edutainment," not even when it's
done in a fairly polished way, as here. The nature of the solar
system is a fascinating subject in its own right, as is the future of
space exploration. Dressing up a documentary about these subjects in
the clothing of a feature film sends the message that viewers
wouldn't really be interested in the material otherwise. But I
disagree: learning interesting new things – when it's done
right – is extremely compelling in its own right, and it's
certainly more compelling than a generic mini-drama about characters
going on an exploratory trip. Certainly, there are great films that
can be made (and have been made) using the same theme material, but
they're not trying to be documentaries at the same time. Adding the
drama angle to the documentary makes for a whole that's less than the
sum of its parts.
If it had been done badly or
presented in a cheesy manner, the program would have been a disaster.
As it is, the polished presentation and seeming attention to
realistic detail (I'm taking their word for it, of course) makes
Voyage to the Planets and Beyond watchable for me. If the mix
of documentary and fiction is something that you're more comfortable
with than I am, the program will likely be much more of a success for
Voyage to the Planets and Beyond is packaged in a plastic keepcase, with both Part I and II on a single disc.
Voyage to the Planets and Beyond
appears in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 format, which preserves
its original aspect ratio. The image is generally clean and
attractive; it's slightly soft, but otherwise looks very nice. The
CGI is incorporated into the live-action footage well, and always
looks good on-screen.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack handles the
requirements of the film well, with a clean and clear sound. English
subtitles are also included.
If you enjoyed Voyage to the
Planets and Beyond, the special features here will be of
interest. First off is a 48-minute piece called "Robot
Pioneers"; it's a history of robotic exploration of the solar
system, mixed with making-of material for Voyage to the Planets and
The "Making of" section
has several short featurettes that focus on particular aspects of the
production: "Turning Actors into Astronauts" (6 minutes),
"Weightlessness" (5 minutes), "Building Pegasus"
(10 minutes), and "In Search of Mars and Venus" (6
A text "Fact Files"
section provides information on the planets and other landmarks of
the solar system, and a photo gallery is also included. Finally, we
get trailers for BBC America, Blue Planet, Walking with Dinosaurs,
Allosaurus, Walking with Beasts, Walking with Cavemen, and
Building the Great Pyramid.
If you don't mind the "fake
documentary of future events" format, and you're interested in
the subject matter, Voyage to the Planets and Beyond will
probably be an interesting viewing experience, as it's reasonably
polished and does have some interesting material. I couldn't really
get past the drama angle, which I felt spoiled what could have been a
quite good documentary, though. I'd suggest this as a rental.