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A Five-night Continuum : The Price Of 'Space' Is Time, Time, Time

April 16, 1985|TOM SHALES | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — "Space" takes up a lot of time. This is known as the time-Space continuum. It continuums for five nights. "Space" also takes up a lot of air. It's an aerospace epic, 10 tons of "Semi-Right Stuff," and CBS expects America to sit still for 13 hours of it. That's a lot of sitting, and much of "Space" is all too still.

Adapted by Stirling Silliphant and executive producer Dick Berg from a big blabby novel by James A. Michener, "Space" mixes factual and fictitious people and events in that maddening counterproductive miniseries way. For much of its screen time, it actually tries to avoid the subject of space in order to consider the presumably more-fascinating topic of sex. It's not just earthbound, it's bed-bound.

The miniseries began its long stroll to the moon Sunday night and continues each night through Thursday. We've just managed to shoo away NBC's "A.D." and here comes "Space" to park itself in the national living room like a big indolent elephant.

"Space" is so long that just about every character in it gets to be a drag before it's over, and that includes narrator Laurence Luckenbill who solemnly drones on about "this minor planet" in "this least-ordered of galaxies." There are five major characters whose fates we follow from 1944 into the present, more or less, and whose lives have something to do with the quest to conquer space.

Fake people interact with real people. At one point narrator Luckenbill mentions Lyndon B. Johnson and Norman Grant in the same breath while talking over real newsreels and phonied-up newsreels. LBJ did exist, as we know; Norman Grant, however, is a fictitious liberal senator played by James Garner, who looks pained through most of the show, as though his girdle were killing him.

The four other major characters are Harry Hamlin as pilot John Pope, who eventually becomes an astronaut; Michael York as German rocket scientist Dieter Kolff, among those imported at war's end to work on U. S. space projects; Bruce Dern as Stanley Mott, who recruits the Germans and eventually runs the space program; and David Dukes as Leopold Strabismus, a philandering con man who parlays his sleazy charm into a career as a TV evangelist.

Although the narration always speaks of "man" conquering space and "man" waddling around on the moon, there are women in these men's lives: Blair Brown as the bright young Senate aide who marries Pope but has an adulterous affair with Sen. Grant; Susan Anspach as Grant's loony-tuney shrew of a wife, and Barbara Sukowa as Liesl, Dieter's liebchen. In a hokey scene during Part I, Liesl submitted to the advances of a lecherous Nazi to prevent the execution of her Dieter-kins.

Silliphant does not want to back away from the grandiose or the grandiloquent here. After all, he is telling the tale of a great era of grand designs. But it's the sudsy stuff that dominates the miniseries, in part because CBS fears female viewers will not watch a TV program about science and space exploration.

Thus, Part I cut from newsreels of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his nuclear-age declaration that "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," to a shot of Dukes having his chest smooched by some foxy doxy. In Part IV, Brown confesses infidelity to Hamlin during a post-tryst chat while on TV an announcer is saying, "America has taken a giant step toward the moon."

Silliphant is trying to contrast the rigors of day-to-day human existence with the glorious call of the big beyond. But it doesn't quite mesh. The narrator rumbles on about "our inexorable move to the threshold of space" but soon Hamlin and Brown are rolling about in another of their many love-making montages. "We've never done it in a bed before," she says to him before one of them, ripping open his button-fly pants.

Much later she bluntly summarizes the affair she has had with Garner's Sen. Grant: "You and I occasionally wrestle in the mud like animals, and that's all." What a romantic! This follows Dick Anthony Williams as a black activist lecturing the senator on civil rights and the lack of black astronauts. The film takes pains to touch all bases. It touches so many bases it becomes quite a pain.

With its eye on the heavens and its mind in the gutter, "Space" is, finally, an insult to every kid who ever looked through a telescope and dreamed brave dreams. It's for the kid in all of us who aimed the telescope not at the stars but at the next-door neighbor's bedroom window.

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