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Mind-Bending Ways to Explore the Cosmos and Beyond … from Your Living Room
When I was about 8 years old, my dad explained something to me that blew my mind: We can see stars that are 10 light years away, which means that we’re seeing light that’s essentially ten years old. And furthermore, if we could put a strong enough telescope that it could see Earth from there, and if we could somehow look through that telescope, we could see ourselves … from ten years ago. Now, I’m not sure that my dad’s science, or my recall of it here, is 100-percent accurate, but I know the concepts are right. I also know it was the first time I reeled from the impact of space knowledge, its heady combination of cold science and white-hot philosophy. And that’s before we even get into the question of whether other intelligent life is out there—or how space is infinite, filled with endless solar systems and galaxies. The existential vertigo is dizzying, but also pretty fun to think about. That’s why space exploration has always been fertile ground for storytelling, both fiction and non. Documentaries explain what humans already know, which is often extraordinary in itself, while scripted shows encourage us to look beyond what we know for sure. Private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have us all talking about space travel with a frequency and excitement level not seen since the NASA missions of the 1970s and ‘80s, and civilian space travel suddenly feels closer to reality than ever. Meanwhile, geopolitics no longer drive space exploration as they did in that era, when the Space Race was a major front for the Cold War. In fact, Americans and Russians recently teamed up for an International Space Station mission despite being on opposite sides of the Ukraine war. As we gear up for a new era of space exploration—and life on Earth presents more challenges than ever—shows and documentaries about traveling to new frontiers in the universe can offer us a sense of hope and inspiration (without ever leaving our living rooms). Peabody has recognized the powers of space and what’s-out-there exploration stories, from The X-Files to Battlestar Galactica, as well as the awe-inducing qualities of documentaries such as Apollo 11 and Cosmos. Here, a closer look at what to cue up on your streaming services to travel to the outer limits of our universe—and expand your mind in the process.
‘Apollo 11’ (2019)
CNN Films and director Tom Douglas Miller take us back to the historic 1969 U.S. moon landing at the heights of Space Race, when all eyes were trained on the skies above and human potential seemed to be expanding every day. The glory days of NASA are on full display solely through archival footage (much of it previously unseen) as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins take on the awe-inspiring feat of walking on the moon. The result is an immediacy that grounds this much-mythologized moment in history. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz raved on RogerEbert.com: “Apollo 11 isn’t like other documentaries about the first moon mission. In fact it isn’t like most other movies, period. It’s magnificent and unique, an adrenaline shot of wonder and skill.”
Where to Watch: Hulu
‘Battlestar Galactica’ (2004-09)
In perhaps the greatest reboot feat of modern television, creator Ronald D. Moore revived a clunky 1978 Star Wars ripoff and, along with Lost, pioneered sci-fi TV for the intellectual set. The premise: The military crew of the old Galactica protect a small fleet full of civilian ships, carrying the last remaining 50,000 humans, from the enemy Cylons, who have destroyed the 12 colonies that had been inhabited by humans in a distant star system. Their only hope is to make it to what’s known as the 13th colony—that is, Earth. Wonky details aside, this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica became known for finding the emotion at the core of futuristic life in space, for addressing difficult post-9/11 political themes, and for its heroic and hardboiled female characters. Writing for Time, critic James Poniewozik called it “a ripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with religious fundamentalists (here, genocidal robots called Cylons), sleeper cells, civil-liberties crackdowns and even a prisoner-torture scandal.”
Where to Watch: Peacock
‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ (2014)
Inspired by Carl Sagan‘s seminal 1980 PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts this 13-episode documentary series exploring many aspects of the universe—from molecules to the Milky Way, from the origins of astronomy to the speed and nature of light. Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter writes that “with a mix of Tyson’s magnetic personality and ability — like Sagan before him — to make science understandable to people who aren’t scientists, plus whimsical but informative use of animation and a visual device called the ‘cosmic calendar,’ Cosmos bites off an enormous chunk of ambitious knowledge-spreading.” Celebrities such as Kirsten Dunst, Richard Gere, and Seth MacFarlane (also a major financial backer of the project) make voice cameos during some historic re-creations, but science is the real star here.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
‘The X-Files’ (1993-2002)
A defining cult hit of the 1990s, The X-Files explored the fringey fictional limits of alien conspiracy theory via a brilliantly simple set-up—essentially an FBI procedural show, pairing a skeptic (Gillian Anderson‘s Dana Scully) with a believer (David Duchovny‘s Fox Mulder). Their smoldering sexual chemistry didn’t hurt, either. Creator Chris Carter made no secret of his influences, including The Twilight Zoneand Twin Peaks, and the series upheld those iconic shows’ twisty, speculative fiction tradition. It also helped to push television toward more serialized story arcs and away from the standalone episodes that had always been the norm. While it was never a smash ratings hit, The X-Files permeated pop culture, becoming shorthand for unexplained phenomena, and made heartthrob stars of its will-they-won’t-they central couple. In fact, the series holds such a place in fans’ hearts that it got a 2016-18 revival.
Where to Watch: Hulu
‘For All Mankind’ (2019-present)
What might have happened if the Russians beat America to the first moon landing and the Space Race had never ended? This alternate-history series, co-created by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore, imagines such a world, and it’s full of intriguing timeline blips (Ted Kennedy becomes president, John Lennon is still alive), gorgeous space-simulating cinematography and effects, and some fascinating deep fakes (President Ronald Reagan himself appears to interact with characters). But what’s even better is the way it draws us in with characters we care deeply about, with traits and personal histories we don’t normally see in the real, white, male-dominated history: the housewife who leapfrogs over her NASA veteran husband to become America’s most famous astronaut, the gay female astronaut who remains closeted to run for office, the Black woman who gets a chance to become an astronaut after working as a NASA computer. For All Mankind’s three seasons are the perfect thing to watch after Apollo 11.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
Watch Ronald D. Moore’s Peabody Acceptance for ‘Battlestar Galactica’
Moore said of the show’s post-9/11 political resonance, “We ask our audience to think about the world in which they live, but to draw their own conclusions. Our characters are simply people like you and me, flawed creatures caught in the twilight between their hopes and fears, struggling towards the light of day.”
Where to Watch: PeabodyAwards.com