The Wednesday Play: The Challenger (2013)

Richard Feynman isn't joking

Normally, I have to raid the archives for our regular The Wednesday Play but this Sunday saw BBC2 unveil the rather impressive The Challenger, a TV movie/play all about the US presidential commission into the Challenger disaster.

For those who don’t know, in the mid-80s, one of NASA’s space shuttles, the Challenger, exploded shortly after take off and a presidential commission was convened by President Reagan to investigate the cause of the accident. The commission included the likes of Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but most notably it also included the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who ultimately was to discover the cause of the accident.

Feynman was/is a bit of a hero to geeks. A New York City boy and an atheist with contempt for all forms of authority and ‘sacred cows’, he was also involved in the Los Alamos project during World War 2, played the bongos, cracked safes and was generally an all round fun guy. That and he invented Quantum Electrodynamics, path integration and, of course, Feynman diagrams.

Being a geeky sort, when I won a physics prize at my school, it was Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think? that I requested: I’d first seen Feynman in the 1981 BBC Horizon documentary, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, which I’d really recommend watching it if you have any interest in science or indeed people, since it’s a great bit of work:

For those who prefer movies, his early life during World War 2, particularly his relationship with his dying wife, Arline Greenbaum, was depicted in the film Infinity, with Matthew Broderick playing Feynman.

The Challenger, a co-production between BBC Scotland, the Open University and the Science Channel in the US, was as much an examination of Feynman and the nature of science as a rational tool as it was of the cause of the disaster. With a stellar cast that includes William Hurt as Feynman, Joanne Whalley as his third wife Gweneth Howarth, Brian Dennehy as Chairman Rogers, Bruce Greenwood as General Kutyna, Eve Best as Sally Ride and Kevin McNally as Larry Mulloy, the play depicts the events during the inquiry, as well as his ongoing struggle with cancer (he died two years after the start of the inquiry). It follows the story from the disaster itself through to Feynman’s adventures in Washington DC, Huntsville AL (I’ve actually been there – I’m not entirely sure the programme makers have been, despite the various subtitles claiming so, but I guess you have to save budget where you can. Plus Huntsville ain’t the most exciting of places) through to the eventual conclusion of the inquiry.

Written by actress-writer Kate Gartside, it’s a tad more conspiracy theory-ish than perhaps it should be, but it’s a really impressive dramatisation and well worth a watch. Hurt’s not quite Feynman – he doesn’t try to do an impression, not even aiming for a New York accent, and doesn’t quite have Feynman’s exuberance – but he does a very good job all the same.

I’d love to be able to embed it below, but the BBC being what it is, I’ll merely link to the iPlayer instead, and leave you with Feynman’s appearance at the Rogers press conference, vividly demonstrating in characteristic style, what he’d found wrong with the shuttle, as well as his take on the commission. No word yet on a US broadcast date, by the way.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.