LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Aliens have invaded, this week - the usual mutter of extra-terrestrial nonsense having been amplified by ITV's "Into the Unknown" week. Carlton's contribution to this celebration of mental vacancy (aka "open mindedness") was a two-part series about extra-terrestrials called - presumably for reasons of balance - We Are Not Alone (ITV). The first of these, broadcast on Tuesday, provided a truly depressing insight into the blinding effects of human credulity. Despite the worldwide presence of millions of video- cameras, despite the assiduity of the faithful sitting out on damp hillsides to commune with the Greys, despite the apparent regularity of such visits, nobody has yet come up with anything better than tiny dots of light wobbling around the screen while an offscreen voice screams "Hey Bud, get a load of this!". Some of them look exactly like those silver helium balloons you get at children's parties, some of them are probably small meteors (they streak across the sky and wink out, just like shooting stars), some are manifestly helicopters (unless the aliens have obligingly adopted international standards on navigation lights), but, to the true believers, they are all incontrovertible proof that the Earth is a must-see attraction for intergalactic tourists.

The second programme, which went out last night, was marginally better than the first - or at least whoever it was that had an uneasy editorial conscience won a few more of the arguments. Though We Are Not Alone was billed as an "examination" of the question, it was, in fact, a bizarre mish-mash of an irresponsible freak show, popular science and social anthropology. If, as Elaine Showalter has argued recently, alien abduction tales are expressions of media-induced hysteria, then programmes which make no attempt to offer alternative explanations are guilty of making a portion of their audiences ill. We Are Not Alone couldn't quite be accused of that - because it was prone to the occasional, unpredictable flash of rationality. In the first programme, for instance, a rash of sightings over Belgium was explained by the fact that Stealth bombers were engaged in secret proving flights at the time. They looked out of this world (they still do) and nobody would own up about them - ergo they must be alien spaceships. But the explanation (which almost certainly could be applied to other sightings, too) lasted just a few seconds, as opposed to the lingering description of the initial delusion. It was as if the programme-makers didn't want to spoil the fun. Time and time again, the possibility of mundane (and thus disappointing) interpretations were mentioned with a brevity that amounted to dismissal; they were never actively pursued and never graced with the cheerleading adjectives ("remarkable" and "extraordinary") which adorned the confused fantasies of visitation (one reliable witness broke off from her descriptions of extra-terrestrial appearances to note that she had also seen two Brontosauruses grazing in the sagebrush).

And even though this second programme took you into the realms of rational star-gazing (the probability that there are other life-forms in the universe is quite large, several of the saner contributors suggested, even if the probability that they have come here to sexually interfere with Idaho farmers is vanishingly small), it seemed to fret at such dull responsibility, eager to get back to figures like Vitorio Paccacini, a Brazilian "entrepreneur", who was strenuously promoting his home town as a rest-stop for green aliens with glowing red eyes (they came from planet FastBuck, I think). There have been recent programmes which tackled these issues with some intellectual decency - Dr Susan Blackmore's Horizon film about temporal-lobe disturbance, for example, or Equinox's recent documentary about geo-luminescent phenomena. But while We Are Not Alone betrayed the occasional twitch of shame, a faint sense that a respectable television company should make some attempt to distinguish between delusion and reality, it did not try anything like hard enough. That this cocktail of mental illness and logical mediocrity should have been co-produced by something called The Learning Channel was enough to make one gag.

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