TV UK, 20 July

Like most science on TV, Space will serve as an introduction for curious children, but is unlikely to excite an adult audience.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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The trouble with the Big Bang is that there had to be something there to go bang. So it doesn’t actually account for creation any more than God does.

‘Who made God?’ ‘What went bang?’ I watch a lot of TV, and even I don’t know.

Space, the BBC’s new science series, begins on Sunday 22 July with ‘Star Stuff’ (BBC1, 8.30pm). Sam Neill, who recently starred in Australian movie The Dish as the man who relayed pictures of the 1969 moonlanding, explains that everything in the universe, including us, is derived from stars, and ultimately from one big cloud of hydrogen produced when whatever it was went bang.

Yes, we are all exploding star children. How charming.

For some of us, though, Sam Neill will always be Damien Thorn, the antichrist in Omen III: Final Conflict. Accordingly, some wit chose Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as the soundtrack to a supernova. (Despite the Old Spice ads, it will always be the Omen theme to me.) Space also features Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube (as in 2001: Space Odyssey) and some great pictures of things blowing up and crashing into each other. It’s all very cool and everything, but what does it actually tell us?

There are plenty of facts. Did you know that, for every grain of sand on Earth, there are a million planets in the universe? You do now. As producer Richard Burke Ward says, ‘If you think the universe is a big irrelevance, Space will make you think again’. Right. At the very least, the universe is a very big irrelevance.

Burke Ward’s aim was ‘to inspire viewers who think science is a bore’. Perhaps that explains the preponderance of computer graphics and pub facts, and the lack of more challenging material. Like most science on TV, Space will serve as an introduction for curious children, but is unlikely to excite an adult audience.

Ancient Apocalypse (BBC2, Thursdays at 9pm) is more titillating. The opening episode, ‘Death on the Nile’, follows Professor Fekri Hassan of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (Fekri to you and me) as he tries to explain the demise of Egypt’s Old Kingdom about 4200 years ago.

The established story goes that the kingdom collapsed in political turmoil following the death of a pharoah. But (imagine a really serious TV voice) – could there be a more sinister explanation?

Fekri found an ancient hieroglyphic account of a disastrous famine at just the right period, during which people were reduced to eating children. A more conservative academic suggests that the report should not be taken seriously. Apparently Egyptians are notorious exaggerators. Fekri is unperturbed, and begins looking for archaeological evidence to back up his story.

There follows the usual TV-archaeological globetrotting in search of rocks, mud and stalactites, interspersed with Tomb Raider-lite reconstructions of life in the Old Kingdom. Worst of all is the spooky voice that whispers excerpts from Fekri’s gruesome hieroglyphics. Ancient Apocalypse never explicitly addresses its own selling point: the depravity of a starving people. The breakdown of morality is a fascinating subject, but this formulaic documentary tells us nothing about it.

The next episode (2 August) follows Professor Floyd McCoy of the University of Hawaii (Floyd to you and me) as he investigates the relationship between child sacrifice in the Minoan empire and a mighty volcanic eruption north of Crete. Is anybody spotting a pattern here?

Beagle 2 – Mission to Mars (BBC2, Thursday 26 July at 11.20pm) follows Professor Colin Pillinger (let’s call him Professor Pillinger) as he attempts to get his little lander, Beagle 2, on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express. Beagle 2’s mission is to investigate signs of life on Mars, but first Professor Pillinger must convince the ESA to carry it, and then pack all the necessary equipment into a 60-kilo package.

It is an inspiring story of a struggle against adversity. Unfortunately, the obstacles in Professor Pillinger’s way are all too human. Perhaps an archaeologist a few thousand years from now will investigate the mysterious demise of Man’s ambitions in space.

Was there a famine, a volcanic eruption? Was it something to do with eating children? Or could there be a more sinister explanation?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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