Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE CABLING of terrestrial television continues apace, with particularly impressive advances being made by BBC1 on Wednesday evenings, which last night boasted no less than three "believe-it-or-not" shows - the first of Chris Packham's The X Creatures, the egregious Mysteries with Carol Vorderman and a QED which had turned its attention to the pressing medical question of spontaneous human combustion. Not to be left behind in this general capitulation to the editorial values of the supermarket tabloids, Channel 4 is currently running In Your Dreams on Tuesday nights. This week, the programme began with flurried extracts of a Live TV! dream-interpretation chat-show called Fate and Fortune, unwisely prompting the question of what actually distinguished its own programme from Kelvin McKenzie's ill- favoured brain-child. Absolutely nothing was my own view, after watching an exploitative trawl through various new-age therapies, an "open-minded" (read "room- to-let") consideration of the meaning of dreams. I occasionally dream that Channel 4 still represents the values of rational viewers who want some alternative to audience-chasing pap - but then something on the telly wakes me up.

If you want an emblem of the increasingly blurred boundaries between Channel 4's remit and the "give 'em what they want" culture which holds sway on the mainstream channels, then the title sequences of In Your Dreams and Mysteries should serve; both use the same background - a blue sky with fluffy time-lapse cumuli - and the same X-Files-style music. Perhaps we should take this as the television equivalent of the warning coloration adopted by poisonous tree frogs - it's a sign that what follows is only safe for airheads. Mysteries, for example, offered dramas which promised to encapsulate the moral conundrums offered by technological advances such as chemical control of aggression, cryonics and artificial wombs; all of them staples of popular science fiction. There were real issues here, but they were squeezed thin between the pasteboard drama and the soundbite contributions (and what does one make of a programme that can reduce Susan Greenfield, a distinguished neuroscientist, and Dr Raj Persaud, an instant-reaction tabloid shrink, to the same level of authority?).

QED and The X Creatures were less disreputable - in that having surrendered to the culture of spooky mystification, they did at least allow rationality to fight back. True, QED couldn't resist a bit of Carmina Burana for its introduction (including deliciously gruesome close-ups of uncharred legs sticking out of a sizeable scorch mark), but the programme itself established that the uncanny appearance of so-called spontaneous combustion cases arises out of entirely canny circumstances. In the right conditions, a clothed human body can turn itself into a slow-burn candle, the body fat rendering down to tallow and the charred clothes acting as a porous wick. There was grim evidence of this in film of a murder victim's corpse, still burning hours after the killer had set light to it. But the film also conducted an experiment with a pig carcass wrapped in a blanket, which demonstrated that the sheer duration of the fire would mean that bone would be consumed, too. Case closed, I would have thought, but for human beings's powers of spontaneous self-delusion.

In a similar vein, Chris Packham's film about yetis relished the opportunity for horror-movie reconstructions of events, which, by its own lights, probably never happened. They had even taken a yeti suit to the Himalayas in order to secure some exciting shots of this imaginary beast stalking the icy ridges. But what followed demystified the subject in perfectly respectable ways. Having broadly dismissed the Himalayan yeti as a combination of high-altitude hallucination and folk memory of some Pleistocene animal, Packham turned to reports of a bipedal ape in Sumatra, a case history which offered a crisp and accessible education in the rational analysis of probability. In the end, The X Creatures didn't shirk its responsibilities as natural history, but it's still possible to feel a little melancholy, to say the least, about the fact that the easiest way to get serious science on air these days is by disguising it as a carnival freak show.