Television Review

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The Independent Culture
DRAWING A line between fiction and reality isn't always easy. According to Mark Lawson's new study of soap opera, Never Ending Stories - How Soap Cleaned Up (BBC2), there are two main accusations levelled at the genre: one is that soaps are ridiculously unrealistic (whoever has that much drama in their family?); the other that people believe they are real.

The idea that ordinary people can't distinguish between TV fiction and real-life is surprisingly common, and a number of soap-stars turned up here to testify to their experience of the phenomenon. Jean Alexander - Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden, if you prefer - recalled impoverished pensioners sending a pound to Hilda when she was in financial straits. Patrick Duffy, Bobby in Dallas, said he can be halfway through a round of golf with a friend, and they'll say "Oh, Bobby - sorry, I mean, Patrick". In 1996, the star of the Brazilian soap Cuerpo E Alma (Body and Soul) murdered the actress who played his on-screen lover when the scriptwriters ended their fictional affair. Mark Little - Joe Mangel in Neighbours - pointed the finger of blame: television goes to a lot of trouble to create a sense of reality, then wonders why people get confused.

That's surely wrong, though: Neighbours has never been remotely realistic. There may be a sad, emotionally disturbed few who genuinely believed Joe Mangel was a real person. But the emotional involvement that most soap fans experience is evidence not of confusion, but of our complicated relationship with fiction: the double-think that allows us to know it's make-believe, but to carry on treating it with the sort of gravity we apply to reality. It's because we can do this that fiction has an effect at all. More about this rather excellent series later in the week, I think.

Meanwhile, Farscape (BBC2) provides an interesting example of how we react to fiction - unadulterated, unbelievable hokum, which is still thoroughly involving and entertaining. Ben Browder plays John Crichton, a rocket scientist who sets out to prove some rather nebulously outlined theory about using planetary gravitational fields to accelerate spacecraft. Halfway through the experiment, his own craft is hit by "some kind of electromagnetic wave", (a phrase that must win some sort of prize for vaguely science-y sounding rubbish), and he is flung through a wormhole to a faraway galaxy. Here he finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between hegemonic space Nazis ("the Peacekeepers") and freedom-loving outlaws.

At one stressful point in last night's curtain-raiser, Crichton muttered to himself: "Boy, was Spielberg ever wrong - Close Encounters, my ass." George Lucas, on the other hand, seems to have been pretty much on the money. It's not all Star Wars rip-offs. The "earthling flung into alien worlds" plot echoes Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter, warlord of Mars. Crichton's attempt to explain the softer emotions to an alien woman ("Compassion," she demanded, "what is compassion?") was clearly a hommage to early William Shatner. The bald alien priestess is presumably a tribute to Persis Khambatta's hairless lovely in the first Star Trek movie, although she also recalls the Marvel comic's character Moondragon - a priestess of (as far as I can recall) Titan with a soft spot for the blind superhero Daredevil.

There is some sententiousness ("Everybody gets to be his own kind of hero"), and a bit of mildly risque technical jargon ("Roger, Farscape, you are `Go' for insertion procedure"). But Rockne S O'Bannon's script didn't take itself seriously - hence the creature who farts helium, causing those around him to speak in high squeaky voices. I have to say, this was right up my street. Mind you, I live at 44 Trashy Escapism Lane.

While we're in outer space, I've felt slightly guilty for being rude about Universe (C4) a couple of weeks ago, especially after reading a very sensible piece in the latest Private Eye about the mindless sensationalism of most television science these days. Universe is at least trying to deal with hard science in an accessible manner. But last night's edition was even worse: what with a pompous, hyperbolic voiceover, shots of physicists driving through barren landscapes, and the explosions and volcanoes, it felt disturbingly like a compilation of car adverts. Comparisons may be odious, but when BBC2's The Planets covered the same ground far more comprehensively and comprehensibly, you have to wonder what the point is.

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