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Series / Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets

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"The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever."
— Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets (released as Voyage To The Planets And Beyond in the United States) is a British two-part science fiction miniseries telling the story of a manned voyage through the solar system, presented in the style of a documentary. It was made for The BBC by Impossible Pictures, written and directed by Joe Ahearne and produced by Christopher Riley, and first broadcast in November 2004.

Five astronauts pilot the spacecraft Pegasus on a tour of the solar system. Their mission takes them to Venus, Mars, through a close fly-by of the Sun, Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa, Saturn and its rings and moon Titan, Pluto, and a fictional comet. Manned landings are made on Venus, Mars, Io, Pluto and the comet, while robot probes are dropped on Europa and Titan.

The crew encounter many hardships and disappointments along the way. The Venus landing almost ends in disaster when the lander Orpheus encounters launch delays, a Titan probe that fails after deployment and the loss of samples from Jupiter's moon Io all test the crew's resolve. The most devastating blow comes when the ship's medical officer dies of solar radiation-induced cancer after Pegasus enters Saturn orbit, forcing the crew to decide whether to continue the mission to Pluto, or abort and return to Earth. In the original British release, the crew decides to press on to Pluto, while the version broadcast in the United States on Science Channel was trimmed for length, with the crew deciding to turn back at this stage rather than continue.

The series adopts a documentary style, and claims to be based on "science fact rather than fiction". It certainly makes a serious attempt to depict the solar-system, voyage, space-craft and planets in a fairly realistic manner based on current scientific knowledge, but it remains a work of fiction, albeit a hard one with attention to detail.

This series exhibits the following tropes :

  • Applied Phlebotinum: While not entirely fantastic, some of technology remains well beyond our current capabilities, including:
    • Pegasus' fusion engines - a positive-output fusion reactor is yet to be built, let alone in a spaceworthy form; however, both NASA and the Soviet Union completed ground testing of solid-core fission thermal rockets, which, similarly, expel hydrogen.
    • The toroidal aerospike rockets that allow the landers Orpheus and Ares to descend to and take off from Venus and Mars respectively - aerospike engines have undergone testing and a linear aerospike was even proposed for the Space Shuttle, but none have been flown into space.
    • To leave the surface of Venus and go back to orbit requires about 27 kilometers per second of delta-v (change in velocity), because of its dense atmosphere. For comparison, orbiting Earth requires a delta-v of 9 to 10 km/s. A much larger rocket (multi-stage instead of single-stage, like in this video) would be needed, or a high-thrust engine that was way more efficient than anything conceived in real life, even the aforementioned aerospikes.
    • The force-field-like magnetic radiation shielding - purely theoretical; although is they have access to magnetically-contained fusion, it's not much of a stretch.
    • Ares is supposed to use a large paraglider chute for a controlled descent - while NASA toyed around with the design, it was never operationally used.
    • A Venus-grade space suit has to combine resistance to extreme pressure, extreme temperature, and possibly acid rain. Currently, no such suit is anywhere near reality.
  • Artistic License Space: Generally avoided, but there are some examples, such as how Aurora-like effects appear around Pegasus, and Lessard's Io landing spacesuit, when the magnetic anti-radiation shielding is operating. Sulman even names the aurora round the ship "Aurora Pegasalis". Auroras are caused by high-energy particles interacting with planetary atmospheres, and would not occur in the vacuum of space.
  • The Asteroid Thicket: Nothing like as bad as usual, but the risks involved in passing through the Asteroid Belt are still greatly exaggerated, and Pegasus barely escapes destruction in a near-collision.
  • British Brevity : It's only a two part miniseries, and the two episodes combined clock in at just under 2 hours.
  • Camera Abuse: The cameras on Venus quickly fail under the hellish conditions; one is shown, half-melted and smoking, from the astronaut's POV. On Io, the high level of radiation (from Jupiter) shows up as random bright spots in the picture.
  • Captain's Log: Every member of the crew seems to be recording a video diary.
  • Centrifugal Gravity: Pegasus has two small habitation pods at the ends of long arm protruding from the main hull.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Earlier in the show a joke is made about how the drinking water is recycled and the crew are drinking each other's urine. This become a lot more important later one when one of the crew falls ill and potentially life-saving drugs can't be administered because the residue would end up in the drinking water.
  • Comet of Doom: The last destination (in the British version) is a seemingly dormant comet, which ends up partially breaking up as it gets closer to the Sun, threatening the Pegasus spacecraft and injuring some of the crew.
  • Cool Airship: While exploring the surface of Mars, the team launches a small remote-controlled blimp for aerial survey and study of Mars' surface.
  • Cool Starship: Pegasus is 1300 metres long and masses 400 tonnes. Her aeroshield is 400 metres in diameter. Her four main engines are powered by nuclear fusion using liquid hydrogen as propellant. Her internal volume is roughly that of ten jumbo-jets, and holds 60 tonnes of food, 80 tonnes of oxygen, five landing vehicles and several unmanned probes. Strictly speaking, she's an interplanetary spacecraft, not a starship, but she's cool all right.
  • Foreign Cussword: Gregoriev curses in Russian. Lessard also speaks Russian, and the two of them occasionally slag each other off in that language. Polite Russian dialogue is subtitled, but not the cursing.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: When Pearson, the medical officer, develops cancer due to radiation exposure, he refuses to undergo chemotherapy, because the toxic by-products in his urine would contaminate the ship's recycled water supply, endangering the rest of the crew. However, Fridge Logic does lead one to wonder why the ship is carrying drugs that cannot be used safely in the first place, and why the crew can't rig a low-pressure still from their lab equipment to recycle Pearson's urine separately. Deus Angst Machina, presumably.
  • Multinational Team: The crew of Pegasus, because "No single nation could take on a project this vast. A manned mission to the planets is a global endevour." They double as a Five-Man Band :
    • Tom Kirby, Mission Commander, American.
    • Ivan Gregoriev, Flight Engineer, Russian.
    • John Pearson, Flight Medical Officer, British.
    • Zoë Lessard, Mission Scientist, Canadian.
    • Nina Sulman, Mission Scientist, British.
  • Narrator: David Suchet fills the Greek Chorus role.
  • Official Couple: It's very low-key, but there are pretty clear suggestions that Lessard and Gregoriev are an item. Everyone else is pretty much No Hugging, No Kissing, despite being sealed in a can for six years.
  • The Professor: Alex Lloyd, Omnidisciplinary Scientist, the Science Director at Mission Control. A bit prone to regarding the astronauts as science-gathering machines.
  • Reentry Scare: Lander 'Orpheus' fails to respond for at least two minutes after FIDO expected to get tracking back.
  • Subspace Ansible: The time-delay for a radio signal from Pegasus to Earth is always listed when the ship reaches a new planet, but the action is cut for dramatic effect, giving the impression of real-time monitoring and communication.
  • Shout-Out: The title is one to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The American release removed it probably to prevent people from mistaking it for a sequel.

  • Space Is Noisy: Mostly averted with the "external" soundtrack restricted to the musical score or radio chatter, but Pegasus' main engines are shown roaring several times, and there are some dubious rumbling sounds as the comet breaks up.