Television Review

THE REAL measure of George Lucas's achievement is not the box- office receipts, or even the quality of the film: it's the way that the media feel constantly obliged to talk about The Phantom Menace, even when they have nothing to say. Even a respectable programme like Leviathan (BBC2) got in on the act last night, with Lisa Jardine arguing that Lucas was following a long and illustrious tradition of prequels. In The Phantom Menace, he has given his fans a "founding myth", a story that "authenticates" his world, in much the same way that early Christians authenticated the Passion by coming up with their prequels - the Annunciation and the Nativity.

This is an interesting analogy (though I suspect Jardine exaggerated Lucas's spiritual ambitions). It started to go wrong, though, when Jardine moved on to 16th-century Florence and the Hermetic books - the supposed works of the mage "Hermes Trismegistus", which supposedly linked Christianity and the wisdom of the ancients. There may be points of resemblance to the Star Wars corpus; but since Jardine gave us little indication of what the Hermetic books said, it was hard to tell. Among the few hard facts that did emerge, at least one was glaringly wrong: Hermes was described as a near- contemporary of Moses, "about 3,000 years before Jesus". Given that both were mythical figures, dates are necessarily vague, but a better fit for Moses would be around 1,300 BC.

In any case, the point of the Hermetic books was to fit Christianity into a pre-existing scheme. The impressive thing about George Lucas is the way he has created an entirely self-contained story that stands by itself, with no need to fit into anything. In the end, this boiled down to a desperate attempt to find an intellectually respectable excuse for screening large quantities of Phantom Menace footage. As if we needed that.

More Star Wars in Army Wives (C4), with a soldier in Macedonia reading a letter from his son promising to bring dad a light sabre. This brief documentary was far removed from Jardine's airy theorising, grounded in domestic grind and trivia. At times, indeed, it flirted dangerously with tedium. The programme also ran the risk of looking petty - these people have comfortable homes, security: don't their difficulties look pretty small next to the traumas suffered by the refugees from Kosovo?

But despite moments of smallness and dullness, Army Wives was rather moving. That was partly because it was only 25 minutes long and partly because it managed to relate these small local difficulties to the larger miseries of the Macedonian camps: one small boy missing his father is much like another. Mostly, it worked because of the real sense of intimacy it generated: Major Jules Swindells said goodbye to his wife, Liz, and their son with an unforced emotion that made the viewer feel like an intruder. I wondered whether they felt happy about having the camera there at such a moment. Then the credits rolled: the programme was directed by Debbs Swindells - Major Swindells's sister, it turns out. Nepotism has its uses.