Last Night's TV: Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV/BBC4
Thursday 16 December 2010
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 Faith in the supernatural and godly has receded in modern times, but it has been replaced by faith in a different idol: progress.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.
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