Christopher Riley. Chances are you haven't heard of him, but if you have even a passing interest in space and space travel, commit his name to memory. Dr. Riley has the distinct honor being directly responsible for two of the finest documentaries on space travel, specifically to the moon, His 2007 film "In the Shadow of the Moon" focused on the missions of the Apollo program and the men who blazed the trails into the cold darkness that lies outside our atmosphere. "Moon Machines" covers the same subject, but instead pays unspoken tribute to the brilliant minds who made the Apollo pioneers' missions possible.
This six part, four and a half hour miniseries covers six vital components that made space travel possible: the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo Command Module, the Apollo guidance system, the Lunar Module, the space suit, and the Lunar Rover. The presentation of the material is very straightforward with the back-story being presented and then the details of how each component ultimately came to fruition. However, there's no overly dramatic narrator laying this out, instead Riley goes to the source and puts the camera on the engineers and scientists themselves, allowing them to share the details.
For instance, in the episode focusing on the guidance system, the viewer isn't thrust into things without regard. The first ten minutes build up the problem that faced engineers and how sometimes a "rough" technology is often the best solution, in this case, adding a sextant to the design of the guidance system. However, since the ultimate task was far beyond sailing the globe or piloting its skies, the engineers were given a far more intense task: design a computer to aid in guidance, the only catch was, computers filled rooms.
The icing on this cake is having the man bearing this burden on camera to tell his story. He like his colleagues is honest and insightful, taking (humble) pride looking back on a life time of accomplishment, but also being able to share fears and missteps. The stories these great minds tell are captivating and even now, in the age of ever expanding technology, trying to comprehend how to put a man not only into space, but on the moon blows my mind. When one realizes that all this work was done without anything resembling the resources we have at our fingertips and take for granted, it becomes almost criminal that past documentaries didn't do what Riley does here.
"Moon Machines" doesn't need flashy CGI, lightening quick editing, dramatic narration, or reenactments to convey the importance of the topics it covers. It relies on real people telling real stories and not insulting the intelligence of the viewer. It is simple and elegant in execution, and a worthy entry in any documentary collection.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is as amazing as the program itself. Modern day interviews are clear and vibrant, but what is most delightful is the condition of the archival footage. One would expect haggard film reels, ala the opening of the "Wonder Years," but the vast majority of footage here is considerably clear.
The Dolby Digital English stereo mix is as equally strong as the transfer. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with the soundtrack. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are provided.
"Moon Machines" is fantastic, plain and simple. When the series finally wrapped up and the last story was told, I was left wanting more. In all honesty, to hear and see how man was put on the moon is in many ways more amazing than the stories of the actual missions. "Moon Machines" is a fantastic series and one that demands a place in the library of any science buff or space enthusiast. Highly Recommended.