Sunday 3 December 2017

On demand: "The Farthest"

In 1977, the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters, NASA launched the two Voyager satellites into the stratosphere, charged with the mission of exploring the galaxy's outer reaches and bringing us closer than ever to our neighbours in the solar system. Four decades on, Emer Reynolds' philosophically inclined documentary The Farthest collects together the testimony of those big brains who got these satellites out there in the first place, and those who've monitored their progress ever since. The film has three main fields of study, all of them fascinating in some way. The first is no less than space itself - the in this case literally astronomical distance the Voyagers have had to travel to see the sights we wanted them to see. "There's a lot of room out there... a lot of room," comments one scientist, and part of the fascination is surely that space inverts our own overcrowded, arguably undercivilised reality; what's missing from the scientist's assertion are the words "to escape into".

The second field of study are the satellites, and what soon becomes touchingly apparent is the extent to which Reynolds' interviewees - generally grounded, learned, unsentimental types - have anthropomorphised their creations over the years. The Voyagers, according to more than one of the mission's progenitors, are comparable to children: forever asking questions, wondering, seeking. Even in the matter of design, the satellites are described as "strange-looking" on our planet, but "perfectly happy in space". Some of Reynolds' subjects are visibly moved when asked to recall the day they had to let their little darlings go, as if they were parents waving kids off to university; to sustain the metaphor, there is even a moment in the second half when one Voyager goes awry - getting into some rocky business round the back of Saturn - and needs an intervention from Houston to be reset on the right path.

Increasingly, you sense Reynolds was drawn to these scientists because - though they may be killjoy spoilsports who insist on pronouncing Uranus "ur-annus" rather than the comedy standard "your anus" - they possess the kind of well-rehearsed backroom anecdotes capable of boggling the layperson, and particularly those of us born after the conclusion of the space race. Here are tales of interstellar satellites weatherproofed with tinfoil sourced from a neighbourhood 7-Eleven, set alongside the suggestion that, even as you and I meet here, intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms are likely trying to contact us: it's just we haven't yet tuned into the right frequency to hear them. (And yet the Nick Grimshaw Breakfast Show continues to come through loud and clear. Honestly, this universe.) Reynolds boosts her own soundtrack with prime selections from the spacier end of the Seventies pop canon; we know we're in safe hands the moment the director drops the needle on a certain Carpenters track.

Yet she also has an eye for big-picture images, whether collating those Méliès-like flickers the Voyagers beamed back to us, or simply noting in passing the smallness of the satellites against the vastness of the cosmos, a sight that somehow speaks to our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Reynolds' third, and in many ways most poignant, field of study is the so-called Golden Record, the vinyl disc cobbled together in the six weeks before the launch to sit aboard the satellite as a primer by which any alien lifeforms encountered might learn something about us. This was our version of Close Encounters' five-note musical salutation, expanded to include greetings in 55 Earthling languages, the call of a humpback whale and Chuck Berry playing "Johnny B. Goode"; the NASA bods jovially lament how this disc gets more attention than the mission's complex logistical aspects. Ten minutes into The Farthest, I realised why: that here, travelling at a rate of knots far above our heads, is the universe's first mixtape, dispatched a million miles away in the hope, however vague or remote, that someone might some day listen to it and prove to us we are not as alone as we might previously have thought and felt. Technically, it's still in the post.

The Farthest: Voyager's Interstellar Journey is now available on the BBC iPlayer.

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