Just three weeks after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the NBC comedy series "Punky Brewster" has built an episode around the tragedy. The show was taped last Friday and is scheduled for broadcast March 9.
The fireball explosion itself, which killed all seven astronauts aboard, will not be shown on the program, nor will any characters be seen watching it, according to David W. Duclon, who wrote the half-hour episode and is the creator and executive producer of the 2-year-old series.
The purpose of the show, he explained in an interview Tuesday, is to help the young viewers who are its principal audience deal with the feelings that the disaster may have engendered, and to encourage those who are interested in the space program to continue pursuing their goals.
The character of Punky, who has expressed interest in becoming an astronaut several times in the past, gets this advice in the episode from former astronaut Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, who appears as himself. He tells her about the risks that all explorers take and plugs the Young Astronauts Program, with which he has been involved since its inception.
It was a message that Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong made man's first trip to the moon in 1969, said he was pleased to deliver, even though the request came on short notice and required juggling his busy schedule.
He said in a separate interview Tuesday that he felt the script handled the sensitive matter in good taste and that he was happy to have had the opportunity "to make a significant contribution to the show and to the young people who will be watching the show."
What he would like children to come away from the show with, Aldrin said, is a feeling that "there are joyful moments in everyone's life and there are sad moments in everyone's life. We must pay attention to each of those and . . . step out into the future with bright-eyed optimism."
Duclon said that the idea for the "Punky Brewster" episode began forming the night of the Jan. 28 disaster, as he watched television coverage and saw the attention that was paid to how children might be affected by having witnessed the tragedy. Then he heard the following day that Soleil Moon Frye, who stars in the show and, like her character, talked of becoming an astronaut, had said she wasn't so sure she wanted to be one anymore.
"It seemed to me there was an opportunity here to, if possible, help some of the children around the country work their way through that kind of experience," he said.
Working with the advice of several child psychologists, Duclon said, he constructed a story that begins with Punky writing in her diary about what she's learned from the space shuttle accident. Then, through flashbacks, the audience sees how she came to learn those things--starting several days before the fateful liftoff and then skipping ahead to that afternoon, when Punky comes home from school to talk about it with Henry (George Gaynes), her foster father. She and her young schoolmates discuss it further the next day with their teacher.
Sensitive to the idea that he might be perceived as exploiting the tragedy, Duclon said that he never considered showing the explosion on screen. "We all felt that would have been emotional overload," he said.
If anything, both Duclon and Aldrin said, they would have wished that the episode could have been telecast sooner, while the event was fresher in the minds of children and they were still sorting through it emotionally. But the production schedule and the fact that the show is currently in the midst of a multipart story prohibited getting it on the air any faster, they said.