Although I know a lot about science and space, I'm only twenty six years old. I haven't lived through most of the major breakthroughs in the space race that united our country, and I never made it a point to learn the major historical details. Any time I've ever tried to learn, the information was presented in classic text book style. When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions is a surprising achievement in the world of documentaries though. It's not just one of the finest presentations that details the major historical moments in space travel, it's one of the finest documentaries I've seen in a long time, period.
Sure, I could sit here and give you the nitty gritty detail of precisely what's covered in each episode, but what purpose does that serve? I'm just going to come across as presenting the same dry material that I couldn't even get into myself growing up!
Essentially, When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions covers everything of significance that contributed to space travel as we know it today. Anything that was big news between the United States' struggles to beat Russia into space, to the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy that happened in 2003, is presented over the course of six episodes that are about forty-eight minutes each, and are spread across four discs.
What's really important is how the material is presented. When I say this series covers everything of significance, I mean it. The episodes in this documentary weren't lazily put together in a way that would ensure you would fall asleep. Instead, each episode tells a story, using history in a way that's exciting, informative, and actually does a pretty good job of keeping you on the edge of your seat! A lot of the footage is from film stock that's pretty old, and there are plenty of interviews, but they're all cut together to enhance the story that's being narrated, not solely to tell it. The interviews aren't from people who are merely bookworms that know their history; the interviews are with people that are a part of the very history that's being presented to us.
You can jazz up a documentary all you want to make it more of an engrossing experience, but the narration can still make or break the effort. Gary Sinise (Apollo 13) is behind the mic for each episode, and he does a great job at conveying the required tone for each event. If you've ever seen any documentary on the Discovery Channel that used a popular actor or actress to narrate, the presentation usually ranges from abysmal, to 'just alright'. Fortunately Discovery broke their usual mold for narration, and got someone who truly 'gets it'.
Everything about this series makes the prospect of discovery in the unknown an emotional rollercoaster. You'll experience the triumphs, as well as the heartbreak, so it's only fitting that the musical score complements the emotional journey perfectly. The score grabs you with its majestic fanfare when there are accomplishments. It will swell with tension and make you sit at the edge of your seat, and it will send chills of fear up your spine when tragedy looms.
All of the pieces of the puzzle have been crafted to perfection. Everything from the music, the narration, the interviews, as well as the pacing, make it hard to deny that When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions, is the best presentation of our struggles in reaching for the stars to date.
Most of what you're going to see in When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions is old film footage. The grain can vary depending on the source. At times the picture is encrusted with it, and at others, it can be startling at how clean it looks, albeit soft. The color can come across as a little faded, and you may even detect what could be some pretty ugly edge enhancement. Considering the age of most of the film, you have to throw all of that technological terminology out the window. It's just the technology of decades ago showing its age.
It's difficult to detect digital noise with all of the grain that shows itself most of the time, but when you see footage that's not completely laced with it, you can tell you're getting the most accurate representation of the film that's possible.
It's during the interviews, which were shot in high definition, where you're going to see what the transfer really has to offer. For starters, the black levels are very nice, as well as the whites, so the contrast is very good. Most of the high def content is comprised of head and shoulder shots, so there's not a whole lot of opportunity for any color to 'pop'. Skin tones have to be the gauge for color accuracy because of this, and I have to say they look very natural. They're not lighter than they should be, and there's no hint of a 'sunburn' hue. In the old film footage that hasn't faded, colors can saturate very well as long as the source had good color to begin with.
There's a lot of detail in the interviews, and the sharpness is at a point where you can't say it's too sharp, and you can't say it's soft. It looks as natural as the skin tones, which helps to provide a good amount of depth.
It's a very nice transfer that may often get overlooked by those who have unrealistic expectations of what high definition is supposed to do for older film footage, but make no mistake about it, this transfer gets everything right.
Everything has been mixed together nicely in the Dolby Digital 5.1 track. No, there are no lossless tracks, but it's a documentary. It's not really a necessity. The score lingers most of the time in the background so it can keep you involved in the experience, and can swell enough to be very boastful and 'full' while utilizing every speaker. This never compromises any of the interviews or narration dialogue either. Everything sounds very clean, and on the occasions the sound is bad, it's due to the old source, not the transfer. The only times you're going to hear surround besides the score, is when they're activated by a rocket that's blasting off. Like the rest of the sound mix, the rockets never compromise the ability to hear the dialogue.
Also presented is a Dolby 2.0 track in English. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Documentary series hardly ever present an impressive treasure box of extra content, and When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions isn't much different in this regard. However, the bonus content isn't something I'd normally label as throw away material. There's over four hours of extras, with little drops available with the episodes on the first three discs, while the majority is on disc four.
The first three discs offer interviews with NASA personnel, as well as clips that highlight the history of our space program. This stuff is mostly presented in standard definition, but the fourth disc is the real treat, as it offers official NASA films that are in high definition. Unsurprisingly, the mileage on the video quality can vary. The NASA features included are:
-Friendship 7: John Glenn
-Proud Conquest: Gemini 7 and 6
-Apollo 8 Debrief
-The Flight of Apollo 11
None of it is mind blowing stuff. It's basically the sort of dry material that I've never really enjoyed about space films in the past. When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions does such a great job at cutting away all the fat from its presentation, that these seem pretty dull in comparison. However, the inclusion of these old NASA films is very nice. There are history buffs that will love to watch these things, and I'm sure even casual fans of documentaries will be able to appreciate their presence. As I said before, documentary series are usually pretty much a bare bones affair, so this was refreshing.
If you like documentaries, there's no reason why When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions should be missing from your personal collection. Yes, a lot of the footage you see can show its age most of the time, but why settle for anything less than the best? You're seeing vintage film footage in what I would assume is virtually indistinguishable from the film reel itself. The footage has been cut together in a masterful way with an engaging score, intriguing narration, and it's all topped off with interviews from many of the historical figures in space travel. You can't go wrong.
It's been a long time since I've seen a documentary that was able to make me feel proud, excited, fearful, sad, and be in awe... sometimes even all at the same time. This series is anything but typical, and that's why I highly recommend you check this out. It's a welcome addition to a format that's been in dire need of additional documentary works for quite some time.