Reach For The Stars is a BBC documentary that was first broadcast under the British documentary television series Days That Shook The World. It tries to portray the primal and inherent inquisitiveness in the human mind – the age-old desire to explore the unknown. It dramatises two major events to accomplish the task: the trials of Galileo Galilei at the Inquisition in the 17th century and the staggering achievement of the Soviet Union in sending the first manned craft into space (and a personal success of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin), which came in the wake of the success of Sputnik (the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth). These two events are juxtaposed to compare the reduced influence of religion that, earlier, like at the time of Galileo’s discoveries, hampered the way of scientific advancements. Amusing thing is, both the events – Galileo’s first trial for heresy and Yuri Gagarin’s one hour and forty eight minutes voyage in space – which are so linked with each other, occurred on the same date.
The first chapter opens up in 17th century Rome, where Galileo’s fate is being decided by a jury appointed by the Roman Catholic Church. You are dropped right into the action and the explaining part is done later on. The first thing that is noticeable that made this documentary and, indeed, this series different from others was that the characters here talk in their native languages throughout. It generates an aura of authenticity around the narrative. The narrator, of course, gives you friendly voiceovers in English with a clear and easily understandable cockney accent. But it must be said that the narration can be a little distracting for those who understand the native languages, as the narrative voice more often than not superimposes the voice of the characters. This is a minor quibble, though, and that would not matter for most viewers.
The depiction of events is fairly accurate, except at the very end. Galileo is shown bending his knee against the power of the church when he is threatened torture by the Inquisition. This is strange. Strange because this has been a known fact for some time now that Galileo continued to defend his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems even after he was told explicitly that he would be tortured if he maintained his denial. Also, a little bit of light could have been shed into his formative years. For instance, the fact that Galileo wanted to be a priest as a young man, but his father forced him into the Pisa University to study science and mathematics would have added a delicious sense of irony in the narrative.
The second chapter jostles the viewers around the mid 20th century. The Soviet Union is on the verge of sending the world’s first manned aircraft into space. They have to hurry as their biggest rival, NASA, have also been testing their own spacecraft and the space race has begun in earnest. The project team has chosen two candidates to be sent with Vostok – as the aircraft that will be used is called. One of them is Yuri Gagarin, who becomes the most famous man in the world for a while.
There is a stark contrast between the time and geopolitical circumstances of Galileo and Yuri Gagarin. There is no hindrance from the Church this time, not in a fanatically communist state that is the Soviet Union. Instead, Gagarin gets all the help he needs from the government. Scientists and other people involved in the mission here have all the freedom they could want without any concern of being punished for heresy. But, there is, of course, a prevalent anxiety of the United States getting ahead in the space race – something that is totally unacceptable to the Soviets. Whatever the cost, the USSR must stay ahead. Extreme precautions are taken so as to prevent the sensitive information getting into the enemy’s hands. The tension pervading the narrative is delightfully cinematic. But still, this portion of the documentary seemed a little less impressive than the previous one, even if it was more historically accurate. Too much time has been wasted on needless illustration of trivial things. It could have done more with better editing here and there. And somehow, it could not arouse my interest in the narrative like the Galileo’s trials did. To be fair, though, overall the directors have done an admirable job in portraying what is one of the greatest human achievements.
When you consider the two portions as one documentary as they are meant to be, it does turn out to be a wonderfully informative watch. That is, if you ignore the comparatively secondary issues like accuracy in the first portion and poor editing in the latter one. One does wish that a little more screen time would have been allotted to Galileo’s narrative. Still, mostly lucid presentation and superb narration makes me highly recommend this gripping apposition of human failures and triumphs.