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"Nerd TV" is a Trend. These Are the People Responsible for It.

Fact-based dramas are bringing more realistic science to the small screen, at a time when we definitely need it.

Out There iconOut There
By Corey S. Powell
Oct 29, 2020 10:00 PMOct 30, 2020 3:02 PM
Wernher von Braun (played here by Sacha Seberg) oversees the launch of a Mercury-Redstone rocket in the television adaptation of "The Right Stuff." (Credit: NatGeo/Gene Page)
Wernher von Braun (played here by Sacha Seberg) oversees the launch of a Mercury-Redstone rocket in the television adaptation of "The Right Stuff." (Credit: NatGeo/Gene Page)


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People often moan that the world is getting dumber and dumber, but if you pay attention to what's on television, you may have noticed an encouraging trend going the other way. The growth of premium cable channels, followed by the tremendous success of streaming video services, has steadily bumped the quality of scripted TV dramas. What's available today is many parsecs above what was on the air back in the age of Big Three network television. (If you're old enough to remember when The Love Boat and Fantasy Island originally aired, you know exactly what I mean.)

That rising tide has brought in with it an entire genre that barely existed before, the historical science drama. I fondly refer to these shows as nerd TV. Some notable recent examples include Genius (about the life of Albert Einstein) and Manhattan (about, yes, the Manhattan Project). Add to that list The Right Stuff, streaming on Disney+, which revisits the early days of the U.S. space program, expanding on Tom Wolfe's namesake book.

I wrote about some notable technical aspects of The Right Stuff in my previous post. This time around, I wanted to explore the science-inspired shows more broadly: who creates them, and how they come together. I especially wanted to talk to Mark Lafferty, who was a writer and producer on all three of the shows I just mentioned. He's also the showrunner (creative director, basically) of The Right Stuff. In addition, I got a chance to interview some of the actors on the show, along with the redoubtable space historian James R. Hansen, who served as an advisor.

Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from these conversations is that the walls are coming down between science and entertainment. Or maybe they were never really there to begin with, and not many people made the journey between the two sides? At any rate, it was heartening to hear how much respect the creative types have for science, and how eager the people on the science side are to tell their stories. Let's hope that exchange keeps going, and that we all end up a bit smarter as a result.

The following interviews were lightly edited for clarity and style.

First up, I spoke with cast members of The Right Stuff, along with writer/producer Mark Lafferty.

Were you a space enthusiast before you started working on The Right Stuff?

Josh Cooke (playing journalist Loudon Wainwright, Jr): I was not. It wasn't part of my family growing up; I don’t know why. My dad was an architect and I think he was more interested in things on the ground! [laughs] I don’t know. But I’ve definitely become more interested. When my daughter came to visit [on the set of The Right Stuff], it was amazing. I got to take her out to NASA and all of that. I find it just really just mind-blowing, the entire space program.

Eric Ladin (playing Chris Kraft, head of NASA's Mission Control): I grew up in Houston, close to NASA, and going on field trips, so [space exploration] was something that was a pretty regular topic, certainly whenever there was any of the shuttle launches. Unfortunately for me, my first really vivid memory was the Challenger disaster. That was a big turning point, obviously, in the program. But NASA always intrigued me. I certainly had a moment when I was thinking, “Being an astronaut, that would be cool.” But that waned quickly. Doing the research for The Right Stuff and shooting the show, it’s been fascinating to see how far [the space program] has come. We’re reaching back in the late 1950s. Now, watching Elon Musk send people into space, the way [SpaceX] is doing it, is a lot different.

Patrick Fischler (playing Bob Gilruth, director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center): No, I was not a space enthusiast ever. [laughs] I’m an enthusiast now of our show, but I'm still not that interested in space.

Mark Lafferty (producer, writer and showrunner of The Right Stuff): My father was a pilot and I got my pilot’s license in college. I lived close to Moffett Field growing up in northern California. I’ve always been surrounded by things related to space. It's something that was just part of the regular conversation. I didn’t have any astronauts in my family, but [spaceflight] is something that was always there, hanging in the ether.

I read Tom Wolfe’s book when I was in high school and then again in college. I loved the movie growing up. When National Geographic came to me about it, at first I was really daunted, because [developing a show based on the book] wasn’t something I took lightly. It was something I revered, and the idea of trying to tell that story anew — I wasn’t sure I had anything to bring to it. But in reading the book again, I kept finding these little matches being lit by things that Tom Wolfe didn’t have time to explore, and that the movie didn’t have time to explore deeply, either.

Having a dramatic series allows you the time and the scope to really get into the lives of these characters rather than just the scientific effort. I think that [scientific] effort is given depth by rendering the lives of these characters in three dimensions, which is what I hope we’ve added to it.

A tense moment with NASA flight operations director Chris Kraft (played by Eric Ladin, center left) and his mentor, Bob Gilruth (played by Patrick Fischler, center right) in episode 2 of "The Right Stuff." (Credit: NatGeo)

If you had to sum up the person you portray in The Right Stuff in one word, what would it be?

Eric Ladin: Determination! The guy [Chris Kraft], he was relentless. Failure was not an option for him, it couldn’t be. There was just no room for it when lives were at stake. We saw that from him. He was not a guy you’d see cockinate [note: I love this term for "showing off"], but a guy who was all business from the moment he got there to the moment he left.

Patrick Fischler: Patience. Bob Gilruth was incredibly patient, and I’m not. It was fun to dive into someone who was just very much not who I am, and then try to find the similarities. This [path to creating an American human space program] was a hard, long process. I think Bob had the ability to know, jumping in, that this was not all going to happen quickly.

Josh Cooke: I’ve been thinking about it, trying to find one word. I don’t know if I can, just because of the nature of the relationship he had [to the Mercury program]. Loudon was the only person who saw both worlds of these astronauts. He was inside the astronaut program, seeing the astronauts' lives and all the things that happened there, including some indiscretions. He also go to know the astronauts' wives, and he knew their family life. He was the only person who had all the information, but he couldn’t share it. Loudon was also harnessed by his Life magazine deal [which required him to write only positive stories]. His job as a journalist was to paint a picture and tell the truth, but then he was not allowed to paint the picture accurately or to tell the truth completely.

Maybe his word was "frustration"? That’s too dark. But he definitely had a tightrope to walk.

Mark, the final question goes to you. You've been the creative force behind a lot of shows that I consider "nerd TV," including Manhattan, Halt & Catch Fire, and now The Right Stuff. What draws you to this kind of science-based material?

Mark Lafferty: Here’s what I love about being a writer: When you’re dealing with something historical, you get to learn a lot about something you knew next to nothing about, even if you thought you knew something about it. For me [working on The Right Stuff] was a great excuse to learn more about something I was already passionate about, and would have wanted to know more about anyway. It was like, "Oh, I get a paycheck to do this?"

It’s humbling to dive into any subject in, as you say, "nerd TV" — a term which I definitely take as a compliment! Whether it was Einstein [in season one of Genius] or Silicon Valley in the 1980s with Halt & Catch Fire, I learned so much that otherwise would have been off my palette. It was just a joy to have that part of my brain expanded.

The real Chris Kraft (left) and Bob Gilruth in NASA's Mission Control Center during the Apollo 5 test flight in 1968. (Credit: NASA)

I spoke separately with veteran historian James R. Hansen, who has written extensively on the history of the U.S. space program. His book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong was adapted into the 2018 movie simply called First Man. Hansen also worked as a consultant on The Right Stuff, casting a professional eye over the show's historical recreations. I was curious to hear to hear how he would grade the result.

You've spent your life immersed in the story of American space exploration. How did that happen?

I was a 2nd grader when Alan Shepard went up in 1961. All of the kids were brought down to the gymnasium; we took off our shoes and sat on the floor and watched everything from countdown through splashdown. I was part of the generation that experienced all of this. Then I trained generally as a historian of science & technology, but right out of school NASA got me to write a book about NASA-Langley, where Project Mercury started. Now I’ve been writing and researching and studying the history of NASA and the space program for 40 years.

Given that background, did you find that you had to do a lot of schooling of the writers and producers on The Right Stuff?

My job was to do my best to make sure there was a meshing of a good story with good history. I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. Of necessity, a filmmaker has to make some compromises with the facts of history, but when you have producers and directors and actors who actually care about getting it as right as possible within the context of the storytelling, then the fictions don’t have to be egregious. Mark Lafferty had me come out to L.A. early in the production. I sat down with all the writers and let them ask me whatever questions they had. They had great questions. By this time, they were already deep into their research.

Then I reviewed and commented on every version of every script. My approach was to give them every possible comment that I have. I’d rather give them too much than too little—even things that I thought might seem trivial and not very relevant, like what type of scotch Alan Shepard drinks.

So what’s the answer? What did he drink?

Johnny Walker Black! It didn't seem important, knowing what kind of scotch he drinks, but they incorporated a lot of those things [into the show]. Since I didn’t know what would be useful to them, I gave them everything I could. I’m sure I ended up giving them a lot more than they needed or wanted. They'd also ask me specific questions that they could not answer. There were a few times I thought, oh darn, I don’t really know the answer to that either, and I probably should. The history is very detailed and complicated! Then I'd call on a network of associates and friends.

Did you ever interact directly with the actors?

I was dealing almost 100 percent at the writing level. Some of the questions that came back to me through the executive producer were questions that actors were asking. Indirectly, I was answering. But not face-to-face conversations.

Let's cut to the chase: How would you grade the overall realism of The Right Stuff? When you watch it, do you feel like you're seeing history come alive?

I do feel that way. It’s especially important because you have to be my age, 65 or 70 years old, to remember this history. And it’s a very important era, the early years of the space age. It’s important to make the people involved — not just the astronauts but everybody associated with the program, including wives and families — as three-dimensional as possible. Not to treat them just as iconic figures. This series really delves deeply into the characters. You come away with a much better understanding of the conflicts and challenges they faced.

For more science news and commentary, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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