The Planets has it all: wacky American scientists, melancholy Russians, arresting archive footage (including the first view of the Earth from space, filmed by a camera strapped to one of Werner von Braun's little contraptions not long after he'd been whisked back to America), snazzy computer-generated animation of worlds colliding and exploding... In fact, it has far too much. The problem is, it's too anxious to translate science into human terms. So alongside the cosmic narrative, how the solar system came to be, last night's episode included a man-sized narrative - how the solar system came to be understood. This storyline was itself divided into two interlocking plots: on the one hand, a history of observation and theory, beginning with Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto in 1930; on the other, the history of space exploration - which itself split into two further narratives, USA and USSR.
Scurrying between all these stories, the programme seemed at times deliberately obscure and teasing, jumping from Immanuel Kant to V2s, from the crashing of planets to Sputnik's plaintive beeps. Some solid facts and intriguing links did emerge out of this whirling cloud of narrative. Clyde Tombaugh re-emerged as the man who rigged up camera systems to follow von Braun's early space rockets on their upwards journey, for instance; but a lot of ideas just zipped out past Jupiter.
Still, the human dimension did make the programme more affecting than pure science can be. George Weatherill, an early advocate of the accretion theory of planetary formation, recalled how, in 1973, he had sat in the control room as the Mariner 10 probe approached Mercury and the first images of the planet's surface began to come through. Other astronomers had predicted that Mercury's surface would be smooth; but as the camera closed in and the craters began to appear, Weatherill knew he had been proved right. That must have been the crowning moment of his career; 25 years on, he still glowed with pleasure at the memory. The only people in the control room more excited than him were the military men: they kept saying "Isn't that beautiful? It's just like the '52 drop on 'Nam." Yeah, well, sometimes you could live without the human element.Reuse content