TV Review of Network First


Network First's documentary about cloning (ITV) offered a textbook example of the way in which the content of a film can be at odds with its style. Christopher Martin's film was the original source of the recent press reports about Dolly - woolly harbinger of dystopian horror if you believe the pessimists, bleating pioneer of a dazzling medical future if you take the optimistic line. And now that the foam of reflex hysteria has crashed on to the beach, the documentary itself brings up the rear - by and large sober and judicious in its explanations, at least at the verbal level.

It sketched in the background to genetic research and the possible medical applications, as well as the ethical disquiets these advances arouse. In its structure, there was no question that it had taken on an advocate's role - it swiftly introduced the sort of children who might benefit from improved gene therapy (sick children being a notoriously resistance-crunching tactic) and it even offered a benign sylvan alternative to those visions of brigades of Saddam Husseins marching in lockstep across the land. A group of bereaved parents were planting a memorial wood, each sapling representing a dead child and each sapling cloned from the Great Oak in Sherwood Forest. Not all of the reassurances offered were entirely successful - Robert Winston, for example, brushed away fears that insurance companies might use genetic testing to create a society of genetic haves and have- nots: "To my mind", he said, "that's pretty fatuous, because it doesn't show a good understanding of how genes actually work." But whoever said insurance companies had to behave reasonably? Given that they already discriminate on the basis of postal codes, it seems unlikely that they would draw the line at biological ones; and it would be scant consolation in such circumstances to know that they were acting fatuously.

On the whole, though, Network First worked to placate unreasonable fears. As if to press home its point, after some concessions to the anxious in the final third of the programme, it concluded with the sight of two small boys suffering from MPS, a genetic disorder which results in stunted growth, brain damage and premature death. There could hardly have been a more vivid demonstration of the perversity of giving more argumentative weight to imaginary monsters than the deforming sadness of real diseases. The hopes of the doctors in the programme, even when expressed with some caution, brought home to you the fact that we are living right now in the future's unregretted past, a time to which people may well look back and say, "Thank God I didn't live then - before gene therapy was perfected."

All the more strange, then, that the film should resort so often to established television shorthand for scientific dread. It began with a sheep anaesthetised on an operating table, and supported that vaguely disquieting surrealism with an X Files soundtrack, a familiar combination of menacing chimes and icy sostenuto. As the film proceeded, research was consistently represented by the visual vocabulary of the mad scientist's lab - frothing beakers spilling out a sinister mist, the inhuman robotic motions of automated equipment, even, most striking of all, a carefully modernised version of the levitating spark indispensable to Thirties horror movies. As the voiceover intoned the fateful words "The moment when life is created", you cut suddenly from microscopic film of a human egg to a flashing oscilloscope. The soundtrack fizzed with the sound of an electrical arc.

This was not a detail the film-makers had stumbled across in their travels - oscilloscopes don't make such a noise unless you make them and, in any case, it's hard to imagine one being employed in the procedure being filmed. This image had been created quite specifically to say "Frankenstein" without actually having to voice the word. While the spoken text of the programme was in effect telling you to calm down, the visual images were prying loose buried associations of superstition, the primitive sense of transgression so often evoked by advances in knowledge. Perhaps this is now assumed to be the only currency with which the general public can be bribed to watch a work of scientific exposition.

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