Last Night's Television - Upgrade Me, BBC4: FlashForward, five

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The Independent Culture

What might have sent the world's population into a coma for two minutes and 17 seconds? A BBC Radio 4 announcer solemnly intoning "and now it's time for You and Yours" might conceivably have accounted for part of the population of the United Kingdom, but what about the rest of the planet? The efforts of FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) to discover the truth are at the heart of FlashForward, a series in no fewer than 22 parts, which began promisingly last night, even for those of us for whom, as a general rule, the words "supernatural thriller" induce an early bedtime, or a game of Scrabble.

Benford blacked out during an FBI assignment, tailing some villains through the streets of Los Angeles. Naturally, the global coma struck at 11am LA time, the middle of the night in other, less accident-prone longitudes. It's no wonder Americans are so paranoid: ever since Orson Welles scared them witless with his 1938 radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds, which convinced millions that malevolent Martians were invading New Jersey, they have been the primary victims of 90 per cent of the extra-terrestrial attacks, nuclear holocausts and natural disasters kindled by writers' imaginations. And sure enough, the only clue as to who might have masterminded this terrible assault on humankind – which caused 877 planes to crash in US airspace alone – led not to Moscow, Pyongyang, Havana or even the Hindukush mountains, but to a baseball stadium in Detroit. When a resourceful colleague of Benford's studied hours of webcam footage from all over the world and spotted one shadowy person walking past all the slumped, comatose bodies, it came from the home of the Detroit Tigers.

Maybe that's a faithful representation of the novel by the science-fiction writer Robert J Sawyer on which FlashForward is based, or maybe having shelled out all that production money, the makers of the series wanted to keep the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave as the all-American epicentre of yet another global tragedy. Either way, it's fair enough, although it might have been useful to get more of a hint of the worldwide scale of the disaster than was afforded by glimpses of the London Eye and the Eiffel Tower. Still, we can at least take comfort from the casting of our very own Joseph Fiennes as the all-American Mark Benford, even though I want to see Robert Hardy playing Norman Rockwell, or Brian Blessed as Babe Ruth, before I will forgive the egregious choice of Renée Zellweger from Texas, lovely though she is, to play the creator of Jemima Puddle-Duck in the 2006 film Miss Potter.

Anyway, Fiennes is splendid as Benford, and the acting, writing and direction in FlashForward is all of the highest quality. The title refers to a vivid vision of the future experienced by people during their blackouts, all of them seeing what their lives will be like at the end of April 2010. And for Benford this vision is worrying, because he is a recovering alcoholic and sees himself drinking again, while his wife Olivia (Sonya Walger) sees herself with a different man (another Brit, Jack Davenport). The opening episode integrated these personal LA stories into a seismic international crisis, and did so with such panache that I had a little flash forward of my own, and saw myself following the series to the end.

The future was also addressed by the poet Simon Armitage in Upgrade Me, a quirky documentary about our collective mania for gadgetry and the constant desire to upgrade it, all of which is leading inexorably, he suggested, to the upgrading of the human being itself, with the insertion of computer chips into the body to cure deafness and blindness.

There was plenty of thought-provoking material here. I especially liked Armitage's assertion that younger generations are increasingly being denied a source of nostalgia, because nothing technological stays long enough in the home to stir affectionate memories. He has a point. My wife watched the programme alongside me and got quite misty-eyed about removing fluff from her stylus, while I remembered even the smell of our family Dansette record-player, in its cream-and-red leather-effect case.

I suppose our children's generation might struggle on through life without ever knowing the satisfaction of removing fluff from a stylus, but it's hard to imagine them being wafted back in time by memories of their MP3 players and iPods, because the clever people at Sony and Apple will have come up with something new before the memories are fully formed. And even if they do recall their iPods in 2050, it surely won't be as wistfully as Armitage described his boyhood radio in the shape of an electric shaver, "which only played Radio 1, in fact only seemed to play "Grandad" by Clive Dunn." Those were the days, my friend. Or was that Mary Hopkin?