“Nobody has ever seen anything like you men, until now.” That’s the marketing pitch to the first batch of astronauts, as seen in the first trailer for the new adaptation of The Right Stuff, which is set to premiere on Disney + on October 9th.
But the trailer shows off a story that we’ve seen before, many times.
Let’s look at the trailer first: it’s a series adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s classic 1979 book about the origins of the space race and the astronauts of Project Mercury. The book was an intimate look at what drove those early astronauts to take the risks that they took. The book eventually became a movie, and from the trailer, this new National Geographic series looks like a pretty faithful adaptation.
The trailer shows off all the hallmarks of a fun watch: astronauts grappling with the dangers of their job, some beautiful-looking shots of the astronauts and their wives, of rockets launching, and of their struggles as they work in the high-pressure environment.
But the thing with this series is: we’ve seen it before, many times. Not only in the 1983 film, but with movies and TV shows like Apollo 13, From The Earth to the Moon, and First Man, and documentaries like Apollo 11, In the Shadow of the Moon, First to the Moon, When We Were Apollo, The Last Man on the Moon, and many more. The legacy of Apollo and the space race is its own cottage industry of space communicators and everyone who played some part in the missions before and after the successful Moon landings. What many of these stories boil down to is that a group of white men worked really hard to reach the Moon, and did.
To be sure, it’s an incredible achievement. But it’s not the full story, and a new body of works like Hidden Figures, Apple’s For All Mankind, Mercury 13, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novels have begun to reinterpret and puncture the mythos that’s surrounded Apollo for decades, highlighting the role that marginalized mathematicians, engineers, designers, and astronaut candidates played in that epic story.
In recent years, but especially this spring, there’s been an increased push to highlight those stories, something that seems to have caught the producers of The Right Stuff a bit off guard: they noted at this year’s virtual San Diego Comic-Con that if they get a second season, they’ll certainly be focusing on the other, Hidden Figure stories. It’s a good impulse, even if it comes a bit late in the game, and it shows that it’s still hard to tell these sorts of stories on the scale The Right Stuff.
Undoubtably, The Right Stuff will be a heartwarming, optimistic look at the early days of NASA that lots of people will enjoy. But from the trailer, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity to tell an equally-optimistic story that lets others share the spotlight.
The Right Stuff will begin streaming on October 9th.