TELEVISION / It came from outer space

Click to follow
THE TIME: the far future. Shuttle- craft Vulture hurtles towards the stricken cargo ship Cyclops. The Commander turns to his novice crew, their names redolent of stellar heroism - Sonya, Steve, Martyn and Tracey - and outlines the task ahead: 'to scavenge, salvage and survive with honour]' Little do they know that they are in the galaxy of Carlton, where all missions are impossible, all stars disappear into a black hole and honour burns up on entry. There is only one response to Scavengers (ITV), but it's useless: in space no one can hear you scream.

The Commander is played by John Leslie. He seems familiar: that helmet niftily fashioned from a cappuccino machine, those firm but fair injunctions to contestants ('If you're not back on board at the end, you're history]'), the homemade breastplate - yes, beneath that manly carapace lurks a Blue Peter presenter. Not so much a Master of the Universe as its milk monitor. The contestants humour the Commander by treating him seriously. Asked how she would react when attacked by aliens, Sonya puckered her forehead for a nano-minute and then announced brightly: 'I would kick them away with my legs.' That should do it. They get their instructions from the Android who wears two cake tins where her bra should be. The Android, you reflect, must be getting her Equity card for services to straight faces.

Scavengers must have looked a winner, springing from such pedigree parents. Release Gladiators contestants clad in genital-hugging Lycra into an Aliens set, incorporate some Crystal Maze executive toys, throw in a few Star Trek epigrams and start counting the viewers: Nintendo kids, iron-pumpers and the kind of computer geeks who always wanted to be warlocks when they grew up, but never did. The result is a pathetic, in-bred creature, weighed down by all these inherited characteristics and lacking the speed which would have blurred its idiocies. Rather than boldly going for high camp, Scavengers slumps into low drama. Carlton spent pounds 4m on the set - dank corridors, combustible electrics, deformed creatures spitting poison around every corner: conditions that BBC staff at White City enjoy for free.

In the face of which odds, the BBC documentary department continues to produce work that is a feast for the eye and leaves the mind coming back for seconds. Sadhus: India's Holy Men (BBC2) introduced us to Baba, who remained standing for seven years. His body was like a cheroot smoked till the ash spills into a frill, his face that of a gaunt carved Christ. 'There are many problems,' Baba conceded cheerfully. 'You have to urinate and defecate standing up.' In Britain, the best Baba could hope for would be the freaks' slot on News at Ten, but in his homeland the man who would not lie was elevated by his fearsome piety. Next, we saw him embark on a 4,000km pilgrimage to a shrine. Perfectly good trains, of course, but Baba, who was worried about the unity of his country and world peace, elected to rotate there on his side, as if by inflicting maximum harm on himself, he might deflect it from others. For seven years he had been a rock; now he rolled.

Art Malik's narration was sometimes so low-key as to be inaudible and it would have been good to hear Baba pressed harder on the life of a sadhu - is such extreme selflessness not in itself a form of self-advertisement? - but otherwise this was a beguiling, provocative film. Alert to the beauty on Baba's journey (sweet tea sliding off a ladle like molasses, chinking bells silhouetted against a Camembert moon), director Naresh Bedi managed to bring home a sense of grace that is entirely foreign to us now, a greater grace won through personal suffering. By way of comparison, Welcome to Happy Valley (BBC1, Everyman) showed the American path to contentment, a road so smooth and unrocky that Baba would have whipped down it like a wheel. The programme visited Wenatchee, formerly apple capital of the world, now principality of Prozac, the US's most popular anti- depressant. The drug's biggest fan is psychologist Jim Goodwin who prescribed it to his 700 patients, all regrettably suffering from 'Automatic Negative Thoughts (Ants)'. Jim made you kinda Antsy himself: an ex-Vietnam grunt, he still behaved as though every pill were a cute little bomb that would destroy unAmerican misery - a Prozac a day blasts the bad thoughts away.

Paul Sapin let his film bowl along with an ironic jauntiness; as Jim

expounded his theories we cut to an orchard of apples being sprayed with pesticide. Like Wenatchee's citizens, they were bathed in a fine mist of unknowing; rosy on the outside, but blotting paper within.

I don't want to be accused of harbouring Ants about British sitcom, but Which Way to the War (ITV) and All Night Long (BBC1) should be poached in formic acid. The former is missing a question mark in its title, but is otherwise stiff with them. Why should writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft be allowed to shamelessly reheat 'Allo 'Allo when their mouldy stereotypes have long been a threat to public health? And who commissions a comedy set in the wartime desert with the obligatory mincing Scotsman, laddish Londoner and Latin tarts whose motto is 'No getta da dough, no droppa da drawers'? Just when you hoped you'd been spared the obligatory upper-class twit, enter Gregory, a fourth-division Ian Carmichael. This is what the punters who complain about Billy Connolly's language call good clean fun: innocence as insult.

All Night Long, with its up-to- the-minute Kilburn bakery setting has exactly the same stereotypes but leavens them with witless, politically- correct additions: the chirpy black assistant and introducing the older woman in a wheelchair. Lovable Keith Barron plays the baker and is not so much running to fat as sprinting. Comfort eating, I'll be bound.

Comedy of the week was The Human Animal (BBC1) with such one-liners as, 'Careful research in certain nightclubs has revealed that the closer girls are to their moment of ovulation, the skimpier their costumes will be.' The idea of Desmond Morris crawling around the Hippodrome with a tape-measure and a thermometer is almost as absurd as that of him being allowed to occupy six hours of primetime. Desmond's pieces to camera go something like this: 'I am on record as having discovered DNA, gravity and the death of God. People said, 'You rash, brilliant, daring, iconoclastic genius, you]' But accurate scientific statement.' A level of self- trumpeting previously only observed in the rogue elephant.

On Wednesday, Desmond's thesis reached its climax with The Biology of Love, or Nooks and Fannies. A heat-sensitive camera turned the copulating couple into a molten Warhol: Tony's sperm got famous for 15 seconds, arching through the Jello labyrinth formerly known as Wendy's private parts. Desmond's conclusions bore no scrutiny, but then neither did Wendy and Tony who complained to the papers that the programme was irresponsible. Hey, that's showbiz: you droppa da drawers, you takea da consequences.

There was nakedness of a different order in The Dead, part of BBC2's 25 Bloody Years and one of the finest programmes in this or any other season. A man's voice would start intoning the list of the lost in alphabetical order, then a woman would take it up like a baton in a murderous marathon. Strange bedfellows in this common ground where Dominic McGlinchey lies near Louis Mountbatten. Plain linen flags with thin black borders marked the spot. Survivors, taut with remembering, told their stories: the child shot by a soldier and her daddy gone mad with grief, the Professor of Cancer whose dog peed on the bomb planted by carriers of ancient tumours, the RUC widow trying to give the Christian answer to 'Do the bad boys go to heaven?', the son of the Indian caterer who can't even understand the last words his father heard, the wife glad her husband was gone because the fear of his being harmed died with him. Maureen, who lost her son under the wheels of a speeding Army Land Rover, recalled the pathologist saying that 'Gary's heart had left the heart-sack which was consistent with him being really crushed'. It sounded likely enough in this land of burst hearts.