Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE GREAT Apes Project has been in the news lately, with its campaign to have apes granted the same legal rights as humans. If we accept that there is nothing special about homo sapiens, it seems odd to grant rights to other species on the basis of how closely they are related to us: granting rights to other primates is surely the prelude to granting them to a wide range of other species.

Not that the legal change would be especially significant in itself. The important shift in attitudes is already being brought about by television programmes, the unacknowledged legislators of our age, which have promoted animal welfare to the top of our moral agenda. This week saw the beginning of Animal Police (BBC1), and next week Channel 5 is offering Animal ER; in between, we've had Barking Mad (BBC1), in which bubbly Philippa Forrester seeks out animal neurosis and cures it with a heady cocktail of ECT, massive doses of sedatives and compulsory sterilisation. Ha, only joking - at least about the ECT and the sedatives. On the other hand, Rosie the over-aggressive rabbit did get sterilised, which should show her. (Incidentally, Pet Rescue has also been coping with several angry rabbits this week: rabbit aggression is clearly an under-reported problem.)

Otherwise, this was a very tame programme. I had hopes of a little action from Zack the over-possessive collie, who had taken to sleeping on Trina, his owner's, bed and attacking her whenever she picked up a phone or opened a window (a sort of furry remake of Sleeping with the Enemy). The animal psychologist brought in to diagnose him said that Zack had been over-promoted within the household, and now regarded himself as the dominant male. The obvious solution was for Trina to get down on all fours and fight him for dominance. Instead, Zack was subjected to a programme of fur-ruffling and praise when he got down off the furniture and failed to bite people. This was the general pattern: a van-shy horse was fed Polo mints, a Newfoundland who kept throwing himself into the river was offered a series of land-based amusements, and so forth.

Of course, programmes like this do not take it for granted that animals have the same rights as humans (not yet they don't, anyway): human dominance, and specifically the human right to dispose of pets that don't come up to scratch, is pretty much assumed. But the writing is on the wall, and it is clear that in the future not only will everybody be famous for 15 minutes, but so will their cats and hamsters.

Prey (C4), on the other hand, takes as its starting point the premise that human dominance can't be assumed any longer: a new species has evolved, physically indistinguishable from homo sapiens, and they are beginning a ruthless campaign to send us the way of Neanderthal man.

I would love to love this, but it's just a tad too schlocky. For one thing, the science is incredibly badly thought out. How did this species evolve? Well, it took an ice age to bring about the last speciation event, which separated homo sapiens from the Neanderthals, so this time, we're informed, global warming must have done it. To emphasise just how different this new species is, we're told that we differ from chimpanzees by just 1.1 per cent of our DNA; the new boys differ from us by 1.6 per cent. And yet, while that 1.1 per cent got us shedding hair, walking upright, using language and vastly increasing the size of our genital apparatus, the 1.6 per cent on the new boys creates no physical differences at all. What does distinguish them is that they don't have all our emotional baggage - as if emotions put us at an evolutionary disadvantage. But, in fact, it is our emotions - our strong social bonding - which have enabled us to do so well.

The truth is, this is nothing more than a remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or V with a bit of half-baked Darwinian hocus-pocus thrown in. And it's packed with other familiar situations and characters: the Lecter-like serial-killer genius; the moment of terror that turns out to be the friendly attentions of a domestic animal; the genial investigator who turns out to be an impostor. Despite all this, Prey does make a powerful point about human evolution: if our species can still make and watch trash like this, there's plenty of room for improvement.