Review: The Space Race Episode—Netflix’s History 101

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Netflix’s New Series History 101 Provides Bite-Sized Background on Modern History—Including the Space Race

Last week Netflix premiered a new series called History 101. Some critics roasted it for being a bit watered down and too “hot-button.” However, if you’re not looking for an eight-hour Ken Burns treatise on any of the subjects covered by the series, you may find it enjoyable. And if it’s a subject you don’t know about, you might even learn a little. The reason it’s showing up here on Space Porn is that the second episode is all about the Space Race, which I thought was kind of fun to watch. Here’s a rundown!

Bite-Sized History Chunks

Again, these episodes are small. They clock in at just around 20-minutes a piece, so they’re easily digestible. The other thing History 101 has going for it is that it doesn’t really follow a single narrative. Each episode is self-contained and centered on a single topic, such as fast-food, robots, and, in our case, the Space Race. So, for instance, if I wanted to understand a little bit more about “The Rise of China,” I’d watch that episode, knowing that I’d only be getting the very basics. 

In the case of the Space Race, yours truly is actually a certified history teacher, so I can tell you that while this episode is very shallow, it’s pretty accurate information. 

The Official Trailer:

The Space Race

The episode begins where it should, at the end of World War II and the birth of the Atomic Age. As such, the directors briefly outline the paranoia and fear that rose up between the United States and the Soviet Union during that time. But again, if you really want to know about the complex nature of why the Soviets and Americans spent half a century locked in an arms race that still defines our geopolitical reality, watch Ken Burns’ World War II series.

Unfortunately, many Americans barely remember what they were taught in high school history class. I’d venture that many don’t realize how nuclear missiles and Neil Armstrong are connected. Similarly, many walk around thinking, “We won the space race.” And, as the episode points out, that’s not entirely true. In fact, it’s only true if you look at it from a particular point of view. For example, the Soviets put the first satellite into orbit. They put the first living thing into orbit (RIP Laika the dog). Then they put the first human into space. They landed a craft on the moon first, and they were incredibly close to putting the first human there. In fact, the United States only just beat them on that one.

“So What I Told You Was True…From a Certain Point of View”

Now, if you look at that one big prize, then yes. The U.S. won the race to the moon. On the other hand, if you look at every other first, it’s not quite as cut and dry. Like old Obi-Wan says in Return of the Jedi, “…many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

That’s another point of contention for some critics of the show. The topics seem to have a thread of social commentary running though them. And really, it’s easy for filmmakers and writers to spin history any way they want. But facts are facts, and sometimes people just don’t like the facts, so they criticize them. And, as I said earlier, the information presented in the space race episode is valid based on my knowledge of the topic.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 Comets

I brought up the two complaints about the series I’ve read because I think they’re valid critiques of the show. On the other hand, there are some other things to consider.

First, the show is entertainment, and if while you can learn from entertainment, it’s not a substitute for an actual education. So, to hold it to an academic standard isn’t really fair. However, one should still expect and demand accurate information.

As for the Space Race episode, I didn’t find any fault there. I thought it was a well organized introduction to the topic and anyone who’s curious should watch it. Conversely, I didn’t rate it very high because it is a pretty shallow look into a complex time and, while I was entertained, I didn’t learn anything new watching it.

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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