A mere 10 days after NBC sent the dreadful “Asteroid” crash-landing into American TV homes, the network delivers this splendid National Geographic hour that has the unique effect of refuting pretty much everything the miniseries told us about the impact made by gargantuan rocks colliding with our high-rises and Honda Preludes.
For instance: Contrary to what we “learned” in the highly rated two-parter, America would most likely not be inspired to blow a huge slab of space-hurtling death rock into a zillion pieces with a laser beam but rather be more inclined to employ a huge missile to deflect it into another orbit.
Of course, that scenario prevents us from seeing a shower of mini-meteors — most of which, in reality, would have dissipated once passing through our atmosphere — pummeling Dallas.
A key fact that renders the other “Asteroid” scientifically illiterate: 90% of the flaming rocks that could potentially smash the Earth like a pancake are unlikely even to be detected prior to slamdown.
The most ironic aspect of the hour, however, is that even its special effects are more believable than the much-ballyhooed pyrotechnics in NBC’s $19 million mini. It is also several thousand times more suspenseful and frightening in the way it depicts an asteroid catastrophe.
At the core of “Deadly Impact” is the inspiring story of geologist-astronomer Gene Shoemaker, who has dedicated his life to the long-unpopular theory that huge and even smaller craters such as one in Arizona were the result of ancient asteroid collisions and not volcanic eruptions, as was commonly believed.
Shoemaker, certainly the father of modern asteroid science, was proven right (as was his devoted wife, Carolyn, and collaborator David Levy) when the comet that came to be known as Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter in 1994 and created scars as large as the Earth itself; Gene Shoemaker called it “a once-in-a-millennium experience.”
The hour follows the Shoemakers as they poke around various telescopes and meteor craters, painting a picture of a truly joyful and charming couple who glory in their work.
“Deadly Impact” also illustrates, via elaborate visuals from cinematographers Larry Gebhardt, Wayne De La Roche and Ron Goodman and disturbing factoids from its team of scientific advisers, the true probability and peril of a calamitous asteroid crash.
Million-megaton collisions happen on Earth roughly every millennium or so, while rocks big enough to destroy a major city pay us a visit perhaps every two to three centuries. The restraint fits the tenor of a show that is admirably even-handed, avoiding the temptation to be alarmist.
Tech credits for the docu are all exquisite, in keeping with the uncompromising quality of the National Geographic franchise. It’s almost enough to make us forget those four hours of rock-spewing mayhem that came before.