TELEVISION / Beam me up, it's the Republicans

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The Independent Culture
HANDS UP anyone out there who thought the first episode of Star Trek (BBC2) and The Road to the White House: the Republican Convention (BBC2) were separate programmes. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Consider the evidence. The only sparks in either show came from the proximity of nylon leisurewear to metal surfaces. Both sets of characters impose a rigid moral system on an ungrateful universe. And then there is the dialogue. Who said: 'A man either meets life head-on and licks it or turns his back on it and starts to wither away?' Was it a) George Bush or b) the SS Enterprise's doctor? Not George, this time honey, but he will, he will. To cravenly go where no homespun humbug has ever gone before.

It is Wednesday, 8pm their time, 2am ours. On the floor of the Houston Astrodome (a spaceship tethered in a parking lot) 2,200 delegates are gathered for the Family Values evening. With the end of the Evil Empire, the party is targeting the enemy within: homosexuals, single parents, pessimists. Major Dad, a soap star, introduces Marilyn Quayle: 'Thinkin' about all she's done makes me feel real humble. Loy-year, nawvelist, vawlunteer and she still has time to bake cookies.' After a few minutes of this your molars begin tingling, two or three hours and cavities start to form. Marilyn moves forward to the podium; the smile occupies the entire jaw and extends under the hair which belongs to a curlier, girlier era when Esther Williams tucked hers under a tulip bathing-cap. Marilyn believes in God (three syllables) and personal discipline. As she speaks, the camera cuts to Dan Quayle up in the Presidential Box. Dan has the look of a small boy who has wet his pants and is wondering how to break the news to Mom. 'The liberals were disappointed because most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women,' says Marilyn to whooping approval. I try to imagine sharing an essential nature with Marilyn, and fail. Mrs Quayle is three parts dentistry, two parts Klingon.

The BBC's coverage was first class. David Dimbleby showed the customary straight bat to various senators, but it was Charles Wheeler who hit them out of the attack. Wheeler looked like he had been hacked down from Mount Rushmore specially for the occasion: that stony stare, the chalky wedge of hair, the furrowed face of ages. Roused by folly, Wheeler growls wheezily like Edward Bear used to when you thumped him but, unlike lesser colleagues, he cuddles up to no man. He has escaped the dead hand of 'balanced reporting'. On Monday's Newsnight (BBC2) he took Bush apart with a combination of insight and indignation: 'It's not enough to tell millions of troubled people how lucky they are to live in the greatest country in the world.' You trust Wheeler because you know that next time it will be Clinton under the same scrupulous scalpel.

The show's other star was the New York Times's R Apple Jr. When Dimbleby wondered what relevance Bush's grandson had to the proceedings, Apple chided sweetly: 'David, it's extremely impolite of you to demand relevance out of American politics. It's not something you're going to find a great deal of in either party.' Here was welcome astringency in an event where most speakers waded to their points through chocolate malt. Even the camera got woozy on sentiment, dreamily cruising the crowd, alighting on a woman's eyes brimming with inspirational tears, a baby crooked in his father's arm.

Thursday was George's big night, and Bob Dole introduced him. Bob is a great guy, but scripted jokes had him stumbling all the way to gaffe of the week, claiming a Republican desire for 'more affordable, more accessible hair care'. Now we're talking. Fringe benefits.

Just before George came a video reminding millions of watching Americans why the Presidency was important. It had Robert Mitchum on vocals and General Patton on verbals: 'America needs the integrity of George Washington. America needs the resolve of FDR. America needs the imagination of John F Kennedy. America needs the determination of Richard Nixon . . .' She needs the what? 'Loud applause there for FDR,' said Dimbleby. 'His New Deal, exactly the way of dealing with Depression which this convention is bitterly opposed to.' Wheeler was in like a polecat: 'Yes, but FDR is dead and he's not going to beat Bush is he?'

In The Cage, the 1964 pilot for Star Trek, Spock was the only familiar face, but you could already see the outline of greatness. Jeffrey Hunter played Captain Christopher Pike (later to become William Shatner's Kirk) in a mustard velour top with ribbed turtleneck. His blue eyes burned with a moral authority that could fry a single parent at 10 paces. The rest of the crew seemed to lack character, perhaps because it lacked the characters we know. Elsewhere, all was perfection. The crew beamed down to a planet cut out of the back of a cornflakes packet, complete with standard- issue Ursula Undress in a cobweb mini. The hostile aliens wore Crimplene housecoats and communicated by wiggling veins on their swollen bald heads. They could read minds, but, as Captain Pike discovered, 'they can't read through primitive emotions'. The whole of the Republican convention was safe. Gar-aww-ud bless America.

There were two shots at China this week but one of them missed. Children of the Dragon (BBC1), an Australian mini-series, starred Bob Peck as a cancer specialist who goes to Peking to find a professor who turns out to have disappeared. On his search, Peck discovers a lovely Chinese woman who unfolds the secrets of her culture while tastefully removing her clothes. This would have been a pleasant place to park your brain were it not for the Tiananmen Square sequences. The massacre is still too livid in the memory to be subdued into a backdrop for a Eurasian Brief Encounter. The escape of the mistress's student daughter at the end was the ultimate cop-out in an enterprise which was too shallow to understand the depths it was plumbing. Peck gave a characteristically subtle, moving performance which is what producers of mini-series count on when they buy in heavyweight actors to add gravitas. This did not prevent it being a load of cobbers.

By contrast, China Rising (second of three, ITV) is an extraordinary account of the country's history. This week it traced the rise of Mao through the testimony of survivors of the Long March, via archive film of public denunciations known as 'Speak Bitterness', to policies of unspeakable ferocity with titles such as Rectification and The Great Leap Forward. Away With All Pests sounded like a more upfront version of Family Values but turned out to be a purge of sparrows, not human beings.