Looking Back At THE ASTRONAUT'S WIVES CLUB - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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On the anniversary of the first United States manned spaceflight, Matthew Kresal spares a thought for those back on Earth...

The Space Race of the 1960s has proven to be great fodder for filmmakers, from documentaries like For All Mankind to dramas like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. One topic that hasn't received much attention is those left behind: the wives of the astronauts. Lily Koppel's 2013 book The Astronaut Wives Club went some way toward rectifying that. Two years later the announcement that it would be an event series on ABC promised to bring their stories to a broader audience. How well did it do that, however?

The screen version of The Astronaut Wives Club certainly had plenty going for it. The casting, for a start, is phenomenal. There's JoAnna Garcia Swisher as the down-home Betty Grissom and Dominique McElligott as the stoic Louise Shepard. Next, there's the duo of Azure Parsons stuttering Annie Glenn and Yvonne Strahovski as the driven Rene Carpenter. Rounding off the wives are Erin Cummings as the slightly weary but matronly Marge Slayton, Odette Annable as the pilot turned reluctant housewife Trudy Cooper and Zoe Boyle as Jo Schirra. It's a strong central cast, with the chemistry between the women being a significant part of why it works as well as it does.

The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag, though. The seven astronaut husbands are a prime example, with some such as Sam Reid as John Glenn and Joel Johnstone as Gus Grissom, faring better than others. Luke Kirby's composite Life Magazine writer Max Kaplan, as well as Evan Handler as NASA's Dunk Pringle, offers up the public relations perspective rather nicely, though Handler's Pringle feels like a walking, talking cliche at times. Various other astronaut wives, including Antonia Bernath as Susan Borman and Nora Zehetner as Marilyn See, pop up throughout the series, expanding the cast just as NASA's later astronauts do, even if those playing their spacefaring husbands don't prove up to much at times (see Jon Abrahams unconvincing Frank Borman in the penultimate episode). It's a decent cast if a bit of a mixed one at times.

It's also a series blessed with strong production values. The sets and costumes recreating the period are by and large top-notch for much of the ten episodes (if sticking to a fairly low budget in places, such as the Mission Control set that looks as though it's off in one corner of a studio). If you want an example of how well those departments did their jobs, one only has to compare the Life photoshoot early in episode one with the real thing. Elsewhere, there's the music. While some of the source music choices, especially toward the end, come across as odd in places, the scores from composer Deborah Lurie are wonderful. Lurie's work, like the sets and costumes, captures the tone of the series perfectly. All of which makes Astronaut Wives Club gorgeous to see and hear.

And this seems a nice place to mention the scripts. Lily Koppel's book offered up plenty of drama, events, and characters for the series to draw upon across nearly seven and a half hours of screentime. To the credit of Stephanie Savage and her writing team, the series puts many of them to good use such as Alan Shephard's first Mercury flight, taking place on May 5th 1961, and Susan Borman's worrying about her husband's Apollo 8 mission, from Christmas 1968. That said, there was plenty of airtime to fill.

And sadly, as a drama, it can be rather clunky in places. Often, it takes things that happened to the wives, blowing them into bigger deals than they actually seem to have been. Other times, it makes stories up, often out of whole cloth. Episode five, in particular, with Trudy Cooper getting involved with the FLATs, is outright fiction and puts a damning spotlight on two astronauts that, in reality, belongs to a character not even present in the episode. Another example comes in episode eight with the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire, which has NASA rushing ahead with the flight schedule even months after the fire, which did not happen in reality at all. As it moves into its final episode, the series' writer struggle in continuing to justify focusing on the seven Mercury wives, even with Apollo being center stage. The wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts, for example, end up as non-characters. All of which reduces what should have been a vibrant, dynamic series into a dense, even turrid melodrama in places.

At the end of the day, one can’t help but think that the series should have been more than it was. Or perhaps, a three hour, two-episode affair rather than ten 45 minute episodes. As it stands, made as the latter, it's decent, but not great. Reaching for the stars but never quite getting there. Which, perhaps, is apt, in a way.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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