TELEVISION / Armani Martians, go home

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The Independent Culture
I WAS waiting for the news on Monday when something weird appeared on screen. Circles of supernatural light were playing over Television Centre. A voice said the BBC was being invaded by 'a hostile and mysterious race of Martians whose agents take on human form'. Human form? Hello, could we be talking about someone with a helmet of blond hair, Eighties specs and a neat line in tax- deductible suits? 'It is a force with terrible powers beyond the comprehension of man.' Yes, that's him.

Did Dennis Potter make this trailer for the return of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (BBC2)? I prefer to think it was the last, defiant act of a Producer Choice refusenik before being marched off to the Attitude Reappraisal Centre. In a week when the hot BBC rumour was that several 'profit centres' had recorded worse losses than the train crash in Casualty and that certain core programmes were to be removed from Producer Choice altogether, it looked like it was time for Mysteron Birt to neutralise his interceptors, and fly home.

Home to 'Mars 2068 AD', a cute, pastel planet evidently cut out of Vymura cloakroom wallpaper by Gerry Anderson for his classic Sixties puppet show. Visiting Mars, Captain Black and his crew made the mistake of attacking a Mysteron city made from Cellophane and foil. The Mysterons fought back with short sentences: 'We are. Peaceful people. You have tried. To destroy us. It will mean. The ultimate destruction. Of Earth.' In the great tradition of James Bond villains, the new enemy immediately issued a timetable of its vile intentions: 'Our first act. Of retaliation. Will be. To assassinate. Your. World President.' Back on Earth, Captain Black went AWOL: Spectrum feared he had gone over to the Mysterons, but those zombie eyes gave the game away - Black had become a puppet of Producer Choice.

The World President ('We're dealing with forces that we don't completely understand here') is kidnapped by Captain Scarlet whose body has also been snatched by Mysteron Birt. Luckily, the Angels - a trio of crumpet by the names of Destiny, Harmony and Lobotomy - zoom to the rescue. The President is snatched from a teetering Philippe Starck cake-stand and Captain Scarlet plunges 80 feet to his death. Happily, he is revived and finds he has cast off the Producer Choice demon and is now invincible] BBC staff should not try this at home.

Back on Earth, two ambitious new serials took off. Jimmy McGovern's tautly-plotted Cracker (ITV) is a variation on the morose detective genre: welcome the morose criminal psychologist. Fitz (Robbie Coltrane) may be Jung at heart (where Morse had classical music, Fitz has philosophy) but he is Dostoevsky in the head: a compulsive gambler who plays Russian roulette with his life while urging his students to take a rainy tram-ride into the bleaker suburbs of their souls. His wife (the gloriously human Barbara Flynn) walks out after he remortgages the house, and his favourite student has been butchered on a train. Police are holding a man who was found covered in the girl's blood, but he says it's all a blank. Enter Fitz firing live jokes: 'I've forgotten more about amnesia than they'll ever know]'

If this thriller wasn't quite noir, it was certainly crepuscular: clothes and rooms gave off a seductive, smoky cocktail-hour feel, and even when Fitz padded about by day there was a powerful, dark undertow as of a man swimming wilfully close to swirling reeds. Michael Winterbottom directed an exemplary prowling camera. He had class assistance from singer Carol Kidd who turned up on the soundtrack and in a nightclub with a voice that travels from Cleo Laine to Streisand on a gravel road. Elsewhere, there were some false notes: when the murdered girl's mother spoke to Fitz we did not hear the feelings of a distraught person, rather a therapist describing the feelings of a distraught person. But in the main McGovern's dialogue was spot-on. Coltrane has shed a few stone for the role, although I'm not sure he's punching the right emotional weight yet. You didn't warm to him, nor did you believe for a minute that he was the father of the gungy teenager. Still, I gripe. Cracker feels like the real thing: tomorrow's episode can't come too soon.

There was a less sure start from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (C4). It is San Francisco in 1976: Eden before the Fall. The young in one another's arms, the birds in the trees, and enough grass to pasture Nirvana. That was no country for old men; and, as we now know, most were not destined to age. Aids would see to that. Into this sexual paradise comes Mary Ann who has evaded her banal destiny as a Future Homemaker of Ohio and moved into a boarding-house where she stares at the Rondeian bedding activities like a bemused Alice in Slumberland. Director Alastair Reid has pushed the story to fairy-tale extremes: the buttery lighting flatters but also flattens, losing out on shadows. The characters come up missing a dimension, too: Beauchamp Day is Mary Ann's bad wolf, landlady Mrs Madrigal (the splendid Olympia Dukakis) her fairy godmother. The film is soapier than the books, lacking Maupin's controlling tone. But there are compensations: Chloe Webb's kooky Mona ('You can't really hide from the Cosmos, right?') is a Cheshire Cat about to disappear up her own liberation while Marcus D'Amico's Mouse has a grave sweetness that puts to shame the niggardly representation of gay life on television. As Mouse lay naked and trusting in his new lover's arms, it was just possible to hear a sound from the hateful future: the hiss of a serpent entering the garden.

Finally, three unforgettable films about women. We should be grateful to Penny Forster and Ann Lalic for persuading Nancy Lancaster, 93-year- old landscape artist, to reminisce on An Englishwoman's Garden (BBC2). The lady, imperious in primrose, said she was 'not nuts about having my picture done', as if Gainsborough not a camera crew had dropped by. Her final garden - generous scoops of dark hedge marching in serene ranks to the horizon - suggested that Heaven, anticipating Mrs Lancaster's arrival, had rolled out the green carpet. Wild Swans (BBC1, Omnibus) told Jung Chang's astonishing, agonised story about the lives of her grandmother - a warlord's concubine - and her mother, a Communist Party official imprisoned for resisting the Cultural Revolution. Documentaries about writers rarely come to life: close-ups of tapping fingers and meaningful poetic stares are, at best, pedestrian stabs at the motor of inspiration. But producer Mischa Scorer caught it, cutting between film of Jung and her mother, archive footage and stills: all set to the thrilling, plaintive music of Nigel Hess. Image piled on image: Jung seeing her father cry for the first time as he burned his books, Jung changing her name to Military Affairs - her real one, Wild Swan, shared the same pronunciation as 'fading red' at a time when you were either bright red or dead.

In Assignment (BBC2), producer Giselle Partenier investigated one of India's less publicised tragedies - the murder every year of thousands of baby girls, and the abortion of a million more by a culture for whom the son shines brightest. Vellaiyamma, pregnant with her second child after having a daughter, said: 'We don't want another girl, so we will kill her.' Poverty and spiralling dowry costs are partly to blame, but underpinning every testimony from both men and women was the assumption that girls are dispensable, the children of a lesser god. At the end, we saw Shalanu whooping with pain in hospital after her husband, upset with her dowry, set her on fire. Her body was a mummy of bandages, her face black and covered in cream as if ready for shaving. She died soon after. When that nice Mark Tully turns up on Start the Week again to tell us that Western feminism has nothing to teach India, I shall hear her ghost screaming.

(Photograph omitted)