Four decades later, the moon landings seem remote - and almost impossible. How did a nation marshal the economic resources, technical know-how and political power to achieve such a feat of engineering and physics when it was already embroiled in the Vietnam War and experiencing a whole series of social revolutions back on Earth? Or perhaps, since if there's a will there's a way, the real question is: Why did America do it?
In the Shadow of the Moon (Discovery, Sunday, 9 p.m.) begins with the easy answer: There was a space race with the Soviets, and the United States needed a big win. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy boldly announced that an American would land on the moon before the decade was out.
But this 2007 film, directed by David Sington, tells the story of the lunar missions through the eyes of 10 of the men who flew them, and they have seen a bigger picture. One, Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14, suggests it was a voyage of scientific discovery, but mainly these reflective, even philosophical old men speak quietly about an experience of privilege and awe. With his perceptive intelligence and quiet humour, Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, is the linchpin in a thematic rather than chronological account of the nine lunar missions.
These impressive, humble characters are the key to this film, which uses no narration and no other voices except historical recordings of Kennedy's speech announcing the lunar program and NASA's own radio communications with its astronauts.
It takes only a few minutes of viewing the breathless doc that Discovery has paired with In the Shadow of the Moon to see the wisdom of Sington's approach.
Apollo 13: The Inside Story (Discovery, Sunday, 8 p.m.) tells the inherently dramatic tale of how Mission Control worked with the astronauts to return them safely to Earth after an explosion had knocked out crucial systems in the craft. The doc rejoices in frank interviews with astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise as well as their flight controllers; it definitely doesn't need Sean Pertwee's emphatic English accent delivering director Tom Whitter's horribly clichéd script.
Indeed, the gap between the overwrought narration ("While the crew relaxed, in the bay of Apollo 13, danger lurked") and the professionals' laconic comments are often inadvertently funny. This was the mission that gave us the famous line "Houston, we've had a problem" (not the edited movie version of the line, "Houston, we have a problem"). Most of the astronauts are former test pilots, cool customers who aren't given to overstatement.
Back on In the Shadow of the Moon, the astronauts muse sensitively about an experience that put the world and its problems into perspective and made them hugely grateful to live on a rich and fertile planet. That these are pretty obvious lessons for such a massive (and massively expensive) undertaking is one of the many ironies of the moon missions, all of which lie beyond the scope of this engrossing but uncritical documentary. Just imagine, for example, how much fossil fuel was burned to bring home the environmental message that is being implied here.
Puzzlingly, as the credits roll, Sington chooses to use some footage from the interviews in which the astronauts respond to a conspiracy theory. To bother even dismissing the ludicrous notion that the moon landings were a hoax belatedly suggests some odd lack of confidence in the project on the filmmaker's part. The affable Alan Bean, who flew on Apollo 13, recalls how it was all supposed to have been enacted on a sound stage at Houston, and says with a laugh: "Maybe that would have been a good idea."
Four decades, gazillions of dollars in expenditures and two space-shuttle disasters later, what can one say? Yes, maybe that would have been a good idea.
Check local listings.
John Doyle is on assignment for Globe Sports. He returns on Tuesday.
BOB & DOUG MCKENZIE'S
Here it is: the chance to get another close look at the middle-aged footage that recently convinced comics Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas that it was definitely time to sign a deal for animated versions of Bob and Doug McKenzie. But this repeat of last year's anniversary special doesn't just offer the opportunity to make unkind comparisons between the performers and their younger selves; it also lets you revisit those immortal skits about how to burn back bacon or open a beer with the Canadarm. And seriously, it's an interesting doc about the origins of a great piece of Canadiana: When the CBC insisted there be some specifically Canadian content if it was to air the comedy show SCTV, Moranis and Thomas obliged, and Bob and Doug were born. Thank God, eh?
CBC Newsworld, 10 p.m.
THE WAR OF THE WORLD:
THE CLASH OF EMPIRES
Why was the 20th century so violent? In a provocative and sometimes cheeky three-part documentary that begins with this episode about the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and the First World War, controversial British historian Niall Ferguson dismisses the traditional notion that the world wars and the Cold War were conflicts of class ideology and nationalism. He argues instead that race was the great tension of the century and that the outcome was not one of victory for Western democracy but rather one of Eastern resurgence. He tends to simplify the historical arguments he is rejecting and overstate his own case, but his unorthodox approach to both history and documentary is
PBS, 10 p.m.