Television: Last Night

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The Independent Culture
In an alternative universe, I would have been reviewing Breakout in this column. Unfortunately, in the universe I'm currently occupying, the tape of the programme never arrived and, lacking the ability to travel forwards in time to the programme's transmission and then back again to the right side of my deadline, I had to make do with an alternative source of sub-scientific heebie-jeebies. As it happened, last night's The Outer Limits (BBC2) was available, and turned out to be about just such inter- temporal jaunts.

My favourite moment in these excursions into the weird is the bit when one of the cast says something like "It just doesn't make any sense", a little genre tic which betrays the attempt to tie together the two incompatible plausibilities that such programmes offer. The first is a general dramatic requirement that human reactions show some psychological continuity with how the audience might respond in similar circumstances, the second being the entirely self-contained consistency of the science-fiction. So, when two FBI agents discover that fingerprints left at the scene of a fatal shooting match those of a university lecturer who was in kindergarten on the date the crime was committed, one of them has to say "It just doesn't make sense", straddling the gap between the place where it never will (real life), and the place where it already does (spooky dramas in which people hop in and out of time holes). Last night, the two principal characters actually took it in turns to say the phrase, which struck me as being a little over-zealous.

Then again, there was a more than usually sizeable chunk of improbability for us to swallow. "A Stitch in Time" was about a neurasthenic brain scientist who had invented a time machine using an area of the fetal brain she had named the Tempor Discernis. She preserves this top-secret device from prying eyes behind an unobtrusive six-inch steel door in her office marked "Biohazard. Danger. Keep Out", though I think some suspicions might already have been aroused by Professor Givens's general demeanour, a blend of bug-eating loon and Most Wanted poster. Anyway, her time machine enables her to carry out pre-emptive executions of men who would otherwise turn into serial killers and sex-murderers.

Among her victims is the man who killed the best friend of FBI agent Jamie Pratt, thus resulting in one of those chronological pretzels beloved of time-travel fiction. By saving the mad scientist from an abduction in her past (thus altering the course of her life and dramatically improving her hairstyle), Pratt inadvertently condemns her friend to death in the future (which is now a different kind of present). Or some such rubbish. I had actually begun to spend time untangling the macrame of consequences and counter-possibilities involved in this story before that area of my cortical structure known as the Excrementum Discernis sparked into life and I decided to do something more useful instead - like rolling scraps of the Radio Times into pellets and seeing if I could bounce them off the actors' noses.

The Entertainers (C4), a series about the lower slopes of showbiz on the northern club circuit, is not proving quite as captivating as its opening episode promised, there being only so much you can do with people singing off-key and fantasising about the big time. But every week it turns up a memorable detail or two. Last night, it was John and Mary Johnson, a couple who have become so devoted to a club comedian called Rudy West that they have had his portrait and autograph tattooed onto various parts of their body. There was also a touching moment when Tara Lee, a singer who is just beginning her nightclub career, was asked how far she thought she could go. "Well, me nephew John, and Michael say I'm better than Celine Dion," she answered with ingenuous pride. Most people wouldn't have rested their hopes on such a narrow foundation, particularly since nephew John is unlikely to be on this side of puberty yet, and Michael is her boyfriend. But then even Celine Dion must have been a dreamer once.