Television: LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
`Seven months of waiting are over," said Clive Anderson, introducing the BBC's Weekend on Mars. This was forgivable hyperbole but not actually true for the average viewer, I suspect, whose attention over the past few months has been distracted by more local events - little things like general elections, colonial last rites and, more immediately, the passage of Asteroid Henman. So we only had a few hours to get used to the fact that something of great moment was about to take place before the moment itself was upon us. A group of experts had gathered in the studio to wait for the guest of honour to phone in. "Pathfinder might be lying in bits," said Anderson, cranking up the tension a little. And so might our theme weekend, he perhaps added silently, because if Pathfinder had malfunctioned it would have been tricky to avoid a sense of fiasco. Fortunately, a brief cutaway to a roomful of people whooping and pounding each other on the back confirmed that the spacecraft was safely down. Now all the scientists had to worry about were the logistical difficulties of guiding their mobile explorer over the rocky terrain of the Ares Vallis.

In the control room at White City the boffins must have been having similar anxieties - would Clive Anderson spin out of control before he had steered a safe course between jocular puns and unfamiliar scientific concepts? His eyes flickered strangely more than once, suggesting that he was receiving messages over the high-yield antenna wedged in his ear. And when he started to gabble his script like a tour guide who has got out of synch with the sights, you realised that you were looking at a man several hundred million miles from home. It's not that he's without qualities but those he has weren't applicable in this alien environment, whatever pill-sugaring calculation had been made by the producers. When Anderson is among terrestrial stars his astringent frivolity is admirable; it cuts through the unctuous blandness of most celebrity chatter. But when it's placed against the transparently genuine enthusiasm of scientists, as it was here, it sets your teeth on edge. Howard Stableford handled things much better next morning, when an Open University special showed you the first photographs from the lander - an array of Elastoplast-coloured rubble which revealed that there has been little tourist development since the Viking mission first visited the planet 20 years ago.

It may have been that Anderson had been hired as a kind of laugh-it-off insurance policy, just in case Pathfinder blew up, but the BBC needn't really have worried, having used the occasion as a hook for a set of perfectly reputable programmes about space travel, extraterrestrial life and the place of the red planet in popular culture. Occasionally one imagined what the flim-flam artists on ITV would have done with the same material - and offered up a fervent prayer of thanks for public service television. These films were both entertaining and thoughtful, from Death or Glory, which offered an account of the difficulties of inter-planetary travel, to The Natural History of an Alien, which navigated the tricky edge between science fiction and speculative biology. Some of the contributors had clearly thrown themselves over: to construct one alien monopod life-form as an exercise in virtual evolution is understandable - to design a whole set of variant types, complete with coloured textbook illustrations, suggests that the Anorak gene has expressed itself with a vengeance.

A similar borderline was visible in The Grimleys (ITV), Jed Mercurio's jaundiced comedy of Seventies adolescence. Some of this was impeccably scientific in its social observations - I particularly relished the reference to Butterscotch Angel Delight as a non-prescription anti-depressant - but as it continued it moved from comic anthropology to unconvincing fantasy sequences; from childhood memories to schoolboy daydreams. I also wondered about the verbal characterisation - would the pig-ignorant father really have used the word "fop"? And would a boorish gym-teacher have insulted someone with a word as effete as "effete"? Very funny in parts but a plot would help next time.

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