Last Night's TV: Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV/BBC4
The Apprentice/BBC1

All secular societies are ruled by repressed religion. Faith in the supernatural and godly has receded in modern times, but it has been replaced by faith in a different idol: progress. The cult of progress, like the religions that went before, sees history as rectilinear and purposeful, and as a moral drama whose final act is salvation. In religion, salvation comes from death and heaven. In secular terms, it comes from science. We think science can save us from ourselves, by eradicating the causes of human conflict and suffering. But it can't, and won't.

The above paragraph could appear without much challenge in every book written by the philosopher John Gray over the past decade. It overstates the case against progress, of course, because itching for it has done more for civilisation than any organised theology. But the kernel of wisdom in it, which notices the parallels between religious impulses and progressive ones, is entering the conventional wisdom. You can tell that's happening because Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV was devoted to it.

Science programmes were central to the growth of British broadcasting in the mid-20th century, and have flourished since. Their producers have always grappled with the same questions. Should the programme be a lecture or spectacle? Should information come before entertainment? If he (and it was always a he) can't be both, should the presenter be a brilliant broadcaster or a brilliant scientist?

In the early days, it was the former option; recently, it's been the latter. Patrick Moore, that extraordinary man who seems a peerless ambassador for curiosity, is one of the last remaining links from that old world to the new. With clipped, Edwardian English, and eyebrows in a state of permanent disagreement with each other, he brought Science to the masses in The Sky at Night. Countless other shows, presented by fellow monocle-wielding suits, did the same.

This was television as ennobler, and it was fundamentally optimistic. Science, as shown on British television, was a repository of possibility; the whole point of Tomorrow's World was that tomorrow would be better than today. But then, and this was the show's great insight, the scientific imagination turned in on itself, and created a sworn enemy: science fiction.

It turns out that, since the 1960s, the progressive impulses of science have been engaged in a decades-long war with the hysterical imagination of science fiction. Scientists are animated by visions of utopia, while the project of science fiction has been to animate dystopia. The televised effect has been a long-running argument between competing world-views – between those who believe in progress, and those who think progress a secular myth.

Consider, for example, that pioneering work of science fiction, Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment. It portrayed the heroic failures of Professor Bernard Quatermass (modelled on the still living physicist Bernard Lovell). Quatermass sent manned rockets into space, but it went terribly wrong. His career ended in failure. Or look at A for Andromeda, the serial in which a radio signal from a distant galaxy contains instructions on building a living thing called Andromeda (played by Julie Christie). One of "her" creators, John Fleming, ends up convinced that she's out to subjugate humanity to her sinister will.

Such tales were partly Britain's contribution to the space race; but they also showed that the great hopes of televised science had to fight an insurgency against the fears of science fiction, which saw itself as a corrective against the cult of progress, and the hubristic ambitions of their rivals in the laboratory.

Substitute "boardroom" for "laboratory" in that final clause and you have half the glory of The Apprentice (most of the other half being Lord Sugar, the perfect TV villain, as I've said here before). We got down to the last two last night, after a rigorous bout of interviews by four of Lord Sugar's accomplices.

When audition-based shows enter their final stages, the incivility with which contestants have been booted off previously is generally replaced with a grudging respect, and a "you leave with your head held high" message of condolence. Lord Sugar got two-thirds of the way there yesterday. Joanna, the "cleaner from Leicester", was congratulated before being shoved off, tears dripping from her eye; so too was Jamie, the exploiter of Cyprus's property boom. But dear little Stuart, the 21-year-old whizz kid with more wacky ideas than facial hairs, was summarily dismissed on the grounds that he was "full of shit", having overstated the credentials of his telecoms company.

This was done too harshly, and for the first time in several episodes there was a sense of injustice and unwarranted aggression. It followed some magnificently abrasive interrogation. Each contestant coped well, except for one cracking period when Joanna displayed her ignorance of Lord Sugar's other businesses. The process reiterated a central attraction of this show, which is the structure of each episode: compelling activity, followed by thoughtful feedback.

Stella English must be favourite now, but Chris Bates knows he's now a star regardless of the final decision. Like those pioneering scientists, the most attractive thing about him, and Stella for that matter, was not his CV, but his faith in the future.;

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015