Recently, I finally took the plunge and subscribed to Disney Plus. The big push I needed was that it was the only way to legally watch the final season of Agents of SHIELD, which had been infuriatingly dismissed by British terrestrial television. However, among much else, it also gave me the chance to watch the Disney/National Geographic series The Right Stuff. While both the original book by Tom Wolfe, and the 1983 film adaptation (which I’ve previously talked about with Rachel Wagner), start out by covering the activities of American test pilots like Chuck Yeager prior to the Space Race, the series focusses entirely on Project Mercury – the project to put an American into space – starting with the recruitment of the first astronauts, and ending with the first flight by Alan Shepard and President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the Moon.
The Right Stuff does a good job of balancing its historical content with the drama that gets the audience engaged with the characters: the astronauts coping with their new status as national heroes, the competition between them, and their relationships with their wives and children. (Personally I wouldn’t have minded a bit more “space stuff”, but that’s just me.) Jake McDorman and Patrick J. Adams give excellent performances as Alan Shepard and John Glenn respectively, highlighting the differences between the two men and the conflict that is subsequently generated between them. Shepard is portrayed as a jock, serious and driven when it comes to his career, but not especially responsible in his down time; Glenn, meanwhile, is “Mr Clean Marine”, devout and well-behaved but certainly not perfect, his judgemental attitude sometimes causing problems for him. I also liked Eric Ladin as Chris Kraft and Patrick Fischler as Bob Gilruth, who provide a good look at the management and flight control side of things.
There were also things I wasn’t so happy with, however. Despite having more time to work with than a feature film, the series feels like it missed its opportunity to flesh out all of the Mercury Seven: instead, most of the focus goes to Shepard, Glenn, and Gordo Cooper, the same as in the film. Meanwhile, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton and Scott Carpenter only get brief moments of development, while Wally Schirra is barely even present. The Right Stuff also definitely has its share of inaccuracies, mostly with regards to the timing of events, which can be all over the place. It wasn’t a bad idea to foreshadow things that are going to become more relevant further down the line, like Shepard having problems with his ear or Carpenter’s readiness being called into question; but the former at least is a significant deviation from history as Shepard only started having symptoms a few years after his Mercury flight. Deke Slayton being grounded due to his arrhythmia before Shepard’s flight is even more bamboozling; in reality, he was grounded almost a year after that, and had actually been the first choice for the second orbital Mercury mission.
The Right Stuff is a decent portrayal of the early days of American space flight, which I liked slightly better than the film overall. It looks like a second season hasn’t been confirmed yet, but I hope that it goes ahead and we get to see how it handles the rest of Project Mercury and beyond.