Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IN THE beginning was the word. In fact, in the beginning were lots and lots of words, all of them saying the same thing. Just as the universe consists of tiny amounts of matter floating in vast tracts of emptiness, so Universe (C4) consists of tiny particles of information adrift in endless wastes of verbiage.

John Hurt opened proceedings: "Perhaps the greatest question facing the human race is to discover where we came from and to find out what is our ultimate fate." (Don't you love that "perhaps"? - as if this was a bet that needed much hedging.) An astronomer was wheeled on to put a fresh angle: "It's one of the greatest adventures of the human mind, to find out where we came from, where we are, and of course, in the end, where we're going." Another astronomer expanded on this: "Astronomy provides the basic information that each person needs to understand where he or she came from, and where the human race is going." Hurt tried to clarify things: "Now at the dawn of a new millennium, we are at the threshold of understanding how our universe began and where it will end." Or, to put it another way, "Cosmologists around the world are trying to unlock the origin and destiny of everything we see around us." Pomposity compounded by redundancy - infinity brought down to the level of party conference rhetoric.

Talking about the cosmos is never easy; you can't avoid getting bogged down in ungraspably large numbers. In the time it took to watch the programme, the universe had expanded by a billion miles; the universe is 10 billion years old; in the first billionth of a second of the Big Bang, the universe expanded "a hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion times". (I'm not entirely sure that I got all the trillions in there, but does it really make much difference?) In this context, a million miles - which is how far our galaxy travels every hour - sounded quite cosy.

But the difficulties don't excuse the banal hyperbole of the script. We were told, for instance, that the images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope - or rather, the "billion-pound Hubble Space Telescope" - "left even the most hardened cosmologist in awe". What is a hardened cosmologist, exactly: one who picks fights with other cosmologists?

And the difficulty of finding concrete form for these abstractly large concepts didn't excuse some of the visual cliches - the mysteries of time illustrated with speeded up film of hands whizzing round clockfaces.

It wasn't all bad: we did get a couple of minutes of gorgeous computer graphics, showing what you would see if you could stand on the edge of the universe and look back. And underneath the padding, there was about 15 minutes' worth of solid information about how the universe exploded into existence, and how it is flying apart ever faster - so that in a few billion years, when all the stars have burned out, it will be unimaginably cold and empty. Hurt's narration tried to make this sound menacing, and there was some talk of strategies for getting out of it. But space is unimaginably cold and empty already, and the end of everything is an unimaginably long time ahead; so I didn't manage to work up a panic about that.

More scary science in The Alchemists (C5), a two-part thriller set, supposedly, in "the clandestine world of genetic engineering". In fact, although one of the characters is a geneticist, the plot is an old-fashioned bit of corporate paranoia involving dodgy pharmaceuticals - a fertility drug called Maternox, which produces revoltingly deformed babies and kills their mothers. Genetic engineering seems to have been introduced purely as a convenient shorthand for the arrogance of science.

There is a fair amount of Nineties techiness - communicating through Hotmail, switching chips on mobile phones - which doesn't disguise the dialogue's coelacanth antiquity ("What are you looking for?" "If I knew, I'd tell you.") Acting and scenery are palpably low-budget, shorn of all frills; I particularly admired Aneirin Hughes's portrayal of a man who has just lost his wife and new-born child - as stirring a display of mild anxiety and faint crossness as I have seen in a long time. The first part was rather enjoyable, in an ironic, post-modern sort of way; but in more straightforward terms, I don't think I can really be bothered to tune in tonight to find out what happens.