"The Challenger Disaster" marks the first scripted film for Science Channel, and with that title it would be easy to mistake the film for a 1980s-era, treacle-filled TV movie about the astronauts killed in that first space shuttle explosion.
But ABC already made that movie back in 1990 with Karen Allen ("Raiders of the Lost Ark") starring as teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe.
Science Channel's more thoughtful thriller lives up to the network's name as it explores the science behind the 1986 disaster. It begins with the shuttle explosion and follows the investigation into the causes of the disaster with a focus on Richard Feynman (William Hurt), a Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a jaundiced view of Washington politics based on his own experience with the A-bomb in World War II.
The two-hour film is based on his book, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"
"The Challenger Disaster" (9 p.m. Saturday on Science and simulcast on sister network Discovery Channel) plays like a premium cable thriller -- minus the sex or violence -- that takes a deep dive into the physicist's process of piecing together the cause of the disaster.
It's a fascinating look at his work, and Mr. Hurt's portrayal mixes the requisite rumpled professor with a dogged pursuit of the truth using science as his primary investigative tool. His Feynman is uninterested in political niceties or diplomacy, which makes him a thorn in the side of William Rogers (Brian Dennehy), chairman of the presidential commission investigating the disaster.
"I'm an atheist," Feynman tells Rogers. "I personally doubt [the astronauts killed are] 'touching the face of God.' So I prefer to show my respect by finding the cause of their appalling deaths and not stand around looking sad."
A co-production with the BBC, "The Challenger Disaster" was written by Kate Gartside ("Lark Rise to Candleford," "Mistresses") and directed by James Hawes ("Fanny Hill"). It plays more like a science thriller than a biopic, with Feynman receiving clues scribbled on pieces of paper by NASA engineers. He also strikes up a friendship with U.S. Air Force Gen. Donald Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood, "Nowhere Man"), a fellow member of the presidential commission, who may harbor his own secret agenda.
Actress Eve Best, who played the best friend of the title character on "Nurse Jackie" until recently, turns up as astronaut Sally Ride, the only female member of the presidential commission, who at first glance seems as beholden to NASA politics as others but ultimately proves to be a fellow truth seeker with Feynman in her own quiet way.
"The Challenge Disaster" suffers somewhat from its attempts to create added dramatic intrigue: Did leaders of the commission lose Feynman's notes or was his hotel concierge responsible? The film never offers proof either way, and it's an unnecessary embellishment that too strictly conforms to conspiracy archetypes.
Another head-scratcher: Rogers is portrayed as a butt-covering government lackey for most of the film -- he begins the commission's first meeting asking its members not to be "unduly critical of NASA" -- and then inexplicably appears to switch sides at the end of the film without much explanation.
"The Challenger Disaster" celebrates what Feynman calls "a good use of science" that, despite whatever attempts to cover up bad judgments along the way, brings light to the cause of the disaster in an effort to change systems and decision making in the future.
Science Channel is carried locally by Comcast (Channel 110 or 102/872HD), Verizon's FiOS TV (Channel 122/622 HD), Armstrong (Channel 422/127 HD), DirecTV (Channel 284) and DISH Network (Channel 193).
Given the success of all things Alaska on cable reality shows, it's sort of surprising it took this long for "Railroad Alaska" (10 p.m. Saturday, Destination America) to come to fruition. It's essentially "Ice Road Truckers" on rails.
In Saturday's premiere, one crew works to move a freight train from Whittier to Anchorage with a blizzard looming; another crew inspects the rails for damage from harsh winter weather. Some off gridders await the arrival of a "tundra truck" that delivers fuel supplies.
As usual with this type of show, it's a bit of a slog. Moments of interest -- so that's how they repair cracked steel rails! -- are punctuated by long stretches of boredom.
Some of the characters are amusing at first -- viewers meet one off-grid Alaskan who blew off his left hand with a shotgun ("You can't fix stupid," he acknowledges) -- but then it turns into a waiting game for viewers and for the characters as they shiver by the side of the tracks eager for a supply train to arrive.
Also, the sound editing on "Railroad Alaska" is a bit questionable. In one sequence a train traverses an area where a man-made avalanche recently came down. The train is slowed to avoid causing another slide, but on the soundtrack the train's horn continues to blare.
'Hope' springs -- again!
Last week I wrote about the season premiere of Fox's "Raising Hope," which the network announced would have a Nov. 8 premiere date in June. Somewhere along the line that got changed to Nov. 15 but I never saw a change memo and the review disc also says Nov. 8. So if you were looking for "Hope" last week, you'll find it tonight with back-to-back episodes at 8 and 8:30 on WPGH.
'Doctor Who' air time
BBC America will air a global simulcast of "Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor" at 2:50 p.m. Nov. 23. The program, a 50th anniversary special episode written by Steven Moffat, will repeat at 7 p.m.
BBC America will celebrate the Doctor beginning Monday with episode marathons and several specials, including "Doctor Who: Tales From the TARDIS" (9 p.m. Monday), "The Science of Doctor Who With Brian Cox" (10 p.m. Monday), "Doctor Who Explained" (8 p.m. next Friday) and "Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited" (8 p.m. Nov. 24).
No surprise here: Although season four doesn't begin until Jan. 5, PBS's "Masterpiece Classic" mainstay "Downton Abbey" has already been renewed for a fifth season.
The CW ordered full first seasons of its three new drama series -- "The Originals," "The Tomorrow People" and "Reign" -- with additional episodes taking all the shows into 2014. Decisions on second season renewals may not be made until May.
AMC renewed "Hell on Wheels" for a 13-episode fourth season to air next summer.
Deadline.com reports Comedy Central has canceled "The Jeselnik Offensive," starring 1997 Upper St. Clair High School grad Anthony Jeselnik, after two seasons.
FXX has canceled "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell." The final episode aired Thursday.
NBC has ordered another round of "Last Comic Standing" for summer 2014. The show last aired a season in 2010, according to Variety.
Sunday night National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy" drew 3.4 million viewers, the highest total viewership in the network's history. ... New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter has been named the new host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" (11 a.m. Sunday). ... "Farscape" alert: Actress Gigi Edgley has been tapped to host "Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge," a 2014 Syfy competition series that features contestants building sci-fi/fantasy-inspired creatures.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Dancing With the Stars," "Happy Endings" and "The Mentalist." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on The CW's "Reign," TBS's "Ground Floor," Hulu's "The Wrong Mans" and PBS's "Cold Case: JFK." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about the shows we've given up watching. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.