Last Night's Television: Life, ITV3
Nasa: Triumph and Tragedy, BBC2
Thursday 02 July 2009
Life has a slightly sour twist to its title these days, now that Damien Lewis's oddball cop show has been cancelled in the States and is living on borrowed time. It isn't really the moment to get too attached to it, unless you're thinking of mounting a last-minute write-in campaign for a reprieve, but then I doubt that last night's episode would have persuaded a first-time viewer to reach for the Basildon Bond. The quirks of character that Charlie Crews started out with – a zen fatalism induced by a long stretch in prison for a crime he didn't commit, the Asperger's independence of his thought processes – have now stagnated into something just a little too perky and self-satisfied. I have a feeling, too, that there's something about the set of Lewis's mouth that disqualifies him from uncomplicated screen stardom – a tightness that isn't quite compatible with the quirkiness this series strives for. He can do furious and repressed like a trooper, but light-hearted and quippy is a bit of a stretch for him. The script itself does have moments though, such as a scene in last night's show in which Charlie's financial adviser started teaching at a California business school and found that every word he addressed to his class was followed by a hailstorm of key-clattering on their massed laptops. He paused, startled by the effect, and the hailstorm eased off, only to resume just as vigorously a couple of beats after he's started talking again. I quite liked Charlie's boss Tidwall too, whose role is not to bellow at his underlings about their breaches of police procedure (the canonical role of a police superior in an American cop show), but to make them wrinkle their noses at his sleazy cynicism at least four times in every episode. "Hold him on the charge of freaking me out," he said lazily, when Charlie is struggling to find just cause for holding a mouth-breathing murder suspect. Perhaps if he'd been the star and Charlie had been the sidekick they'd be getting ready for series four right now.
As can hardly have escaped your attention today things have been getting quite spacey recently, what with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing streaking towards us like a meteor. Last night delivered yet another chance to see James May at a loss for words in the stratosphere but also Nasa: Triumph and Tragedy, the second of a two-part history of the National Air and Space Administration, a film burdened by the fact that it contained a lot more of the latter than the former. Narrative arc has always been a problem for Nasa, retaining the attention of the public turning out to be almost as much of a problem as propulsion systems and astral navigation. Kennedy supplied the first cliffhanger plot-line – with a challenge to get to the Moon by the time the decade was out – but once that had been achieved there was a sense that Nasa was a colossally expensive enterprise in search of a mission to justify it. Putting a dune-buggy on the Moon might have been impressive – particularly when the Soviet Union was still struggling to put a viable family car on the Motherland's crumbling tarmac – but it couldn't help but look as if the administration was making up new stuff to do in space.
As a result, last night's episode struggled with the task of maintaining an upward trajectory. Even the triumphant high point was a low point retrieved by ingenuity – the galvanising Apollo 13 mission, which reclaimed world headlines when the possibility arose that none of its crew-members might get back. If you weren't around back then (and missed the excellent Tom Hanks movie) what happened was that an oxygen tank explosion left the capsule with two men's ration of breathable air to divide between three. As the carbon-dioxide levels began to rise it was discovered that the spare cartridges from the command module were incompatible with the lunar model's scrubber, leading to the most urgent Blue Peter make in history, with the crew members lashing up an adapter out of sticky-back plastic and bits of cardboard, while someone down in mission control played Valerie Singleton. "I believe that Apollo 13 was one of Nasa's finest hours," said one of the Houston ground crew – an understandable reaction to the emotion of those events, but still slightly odd when you think about it. Their finest hour was avoiding what, to that point, would have been their worst. Sadly, it was later outshadowed by two of Nasa's most ignominious moments – the destruction of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles, both of which could have been prevented with a little bit more care. "We've learned that there are no limits, but there is a cost," the voiceover concluded bombastically, referring to the astronauts lost in both those disasters as human capital expenditure. It was an unfortunately ironic remark given that a little more spending at the time might have saved them.
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