Television: They should apologise for the delay

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The Independent Culture
I was in a garden centre last weekend - just to get some daffodils for Easter, you understand - and there was a Millennium Wheelbarrow for sale. I promise: a Millennium Wheelbarrow. As far as I could tell, it did not have a jet engine or any Charlie Dimmock-repelling laser cannons, but I suppose horticultural hardware manufac- turers have just as much right to use the "M" word as anyone else. They certainly have as much right to use it as TV executives do, and they'll call any programme millennial as long as it isn't adapted from a Jane Austen novel.

To take one example, the writer of The Last Train (ITV) told a magazine last week that he'd "love to tap into millennial tension". But is there actually such a thing as millennial tension to tap into? Apart from the faint worry that our computers might go on the blink, all most of us are tense about is whether we'll have a party to go to. Whereas what should be tensing us up, apparently, is Armageddon.

The Last Train sets off in April 1999 - "a good apocalyptic-sounding year", as one character notes with the requisite grim irony. A neatly cross-demographic group of people is travelling by rail from London to Sheffield when a meteorite smacks into the Earth, sending billions of tonnes of choking dust into the atmosphere. Luckily, the passengers are protected by being in a tunnel. Luckier still, one of those passengers is an MOD scientist with an aerosol of cryogenic freezing gas in her bag, so everyone in the carriage is locked in suspended animation for however long it takes for the air to clear. When they defrost, they discover they are the only beings left alive apart from (so far) some dogs, a long-haired barbarian wrapped in scarves, and a mystic raggle-taggle girl with a pet shire horse. At least we'll still be able to make Caffrey's commercials after doomsday.

The Last Train's first two episodes were broadcast last week, and the daft storylines are already wrecking the series' internal logic with the ruthlessness of an asteroid hitting a bungalow. But the drama is still quite effective. It doesn't look embarrassingly cheap, and the letterbox format and restless camerawork give it a cinematic feel. It's an honourable effort. But, ultimately, it's a pointless one. The Last Train visualises a future that we've seen many times in the past ... on The Survivors, Day of the Triffids, Spike Milligan's The Bed-Sitting Room and a thousand programmes like them. (Post-cataclysmic Britain is an attractive setting for makers of low-budget science fiction. You don't need Star Trek's expensive looking spaceships, you can just set up your cameras in a derelict housing estate.) But these earlier dramas tapped into Cold War tension, a tension which made nuclear holocaust a regular topic of teatime conversation. We may just be naive these days, but in the post-Gorbachev-age, the end- of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario simply doesn't seem so relevant . Presumably run by Virgin Railways, The Last Train has arrived 20 years too late.

Matthew Gordon, the writer, has decorated his tale with some modish issues. The survivors include a mother who had just walked out on her abusive husband when the sky fell in; a middle-aged woman who had just learnt her son was gay; and a girl whose parents never forgave her for moving south to study law. Gordon must have had the problem page of Woman's Own open in front of him as he typed. But none of these add-ons alters the central concept, and the central concept does not respond to contemporary concerns, as cogent science fiction must. The Last Train posits a nighmare future in which there are hardly any people, the phones don't work, the cars are rusting and the cities are overgrown with exotic vegetation. For many of today's viewers that would be a dream come true.

Another leaf on The Last Train's line was all the science fact on TV last week, which had enough thrills and chills to render any science fiction redundant. Dead Man Talking (C4), a documentary about a 1996 murder enquiry, was hardly Inspector Morse, but there was one sequence that will stick in its viewers' minds. This featured Richared Neave, a cackling mad professor, moulding an uncannily accurate human head out of modelling clay, with only a plaster cast of a skull found in a field to go on. The next night, Designer Babies (BBC1) stylishly explored the realities of kiddy customisation. It proved how plausible the recentmovie Gattaca was.

This programme was part of BBC1's human reproduction theme night. Yesterday being the optimum date to conceive if you want to have a baby on 1 January, AD 2000, the BBC slapped its "Babies of the Millennium" project into life on Wednesday: the Truman Show-like plan is to film the growth and development of several millennial children, from birth onwards. But why do the children have to be born on that specific date? Much has been made of the undesirability of a one-day baby boom, so it's hardly responsible of the BBC to encourage it, just so that there will be more candidates for a docusoap when the day arrives.

If the project makes the Dome seem like a well thought out use of public money, then Wednesday's special episode of Tomorrow's World (BBC1) was the perfect programme to get it under way. This crass muddle of infant- related nonsense was as educational as Noel's House Party, and not dissimilar in tone. Driven insane by the complexity of the swingometer graphics on the last General Election night, Peter Snow would ask his studio audience how many of them could curl their tongues, then he'd bark, "That's interesting," for no reason whatsoever. He went on to make the fantastic revelations that children inherit characteristics from their parents and that Joan of Arc was the youngest in her family. Worse still, worse even than Keith Chegwin larking around with an "empathy belly", were Snow's "top tips" on "how to make a baby". Chucking in the words "evidence" and "research" every 30 seconds, he advised exercise and vitamins and cutting out alcohol - because, as we know, nobody ever gets pregnant when they're drunk.

I never thought I'd say this about anything presented by Davina McCall, particularly not anything on ITV, but last night's Birth Race 2000 was much less offensive. Its "A-Z of Conception" was fun and frothy, and it didn't bother with any pseudo-academic justification. Snow the sex guru, on the other hand, would be grotesque at the best of times. With him and Philippa Forrester going on about "our millennium babies", Tomorrow's World was all the more repellent. Isn't the millennium supposed to commemorate a birth which didn't even require sex in the first place? If any prospective parents are thinking of making a late start on a "millennium baby", please think again. You'll condemn your offspring to a life of being hung-over every birthday and receiving joint birthday-Christmas presents from every relative.

ITV's new current affairs hour, Tonight With Trevor McDonald, has had enough press coverage already, but in case you didn't know, the programme was devoted to Martin Bashir's interrogation of the five suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder case. Bashir, who has watched too many courtroom dramas and not enough court cases, succeeded in putting himself across as a tough-talking macho man. But he didn't succeed in getting much out of his interviewees except confirmation that they were weaselly, racist thugs. We knew that already, Martin.

Brian Viner returns next week.

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