Last Night's Viewing: How to Build a Bionic Man, Channel 4
The most interesting moment in How to Build a Bionic Man was a surprise unveiling. Dr Bertolt Meyer, a Swiss psychologist who has a prosthetic hand, was in the States to meet MIT's director of biomechatronics, a Professor Herr. Herr was showing off the department's latest triumph, a prosthetic ankle that mimics human movement more effectively than any previous model.
Meyer was politely impressed. "If he was wearing long trousers, you wouldn't realise that he's wearing an artificial leg, would you?" he said, as a volunteer strolled nonchalantly across the lab. "Right," said Professor Herr, "Just as you don't realise I'm wearing two right now." And with that, he rolled up his trousers to reveal that from the knee downwards he was distinctly Robocop. Herr lost his legs in a climbing accident and, like Meyer, has a more than academic interest in mechanical restoration.
I don't know whether Meyer was simulating his surprise here, but he did it pretty well if so. The second most interesting moment in the film was definitely a surprise to him, though. He'd been trying out the latest prosthetic arm, animating its movements from across the room, a weird out-of-body experience that left him gaping and a little wistful: "Before today, I'd never moved my left wrist," he said afterwards, his grammar fudging the fact that he'd never had a left wrist to move and still didn't. But for a moment he felt he had and he was sad that feeling had gone.
The third most interesting moment involved psychology too. Meyer was attending the unveiling of the bionic man that had steadily been pieced together over the course of the programme, as he investigated progress in various fields of bodily engineering, from electronic retinas to artificial hearts. An eerily lifelike mask of Meyer had been made to crown the lurching collage of bit-parts that had been constructed and he reacted to it with unexpectedly emotional intensity, snapping at a technician who was chuckling to break the tension and then walking out of the room. Several contributors had talked about the unease created by human-machine hybrids but suddenly you could see it in action.
Or perhaps it had just dawned on Meyer how silly this narrative device was. "He'll create the first bionic man that can get off the slab and walk," the voiceover had promised at the beginning. But of course he was going to do nothing of the sort, any such possibility lying years in the future. What he did, or rather the roboticists who were helping the programme out, was to construct a hi-tech mannequin that could be operated by remote control. It no more had life than a Guy Fawkes figure fitted with roller-skate wheels. But in fussing over this dubious MacGuffin, they used up a lot of time that might have been better spent exploring ethical and psychological dilemmas that were only glanced at in passing. What did Meyer actually "feel", for example, as an arm six feet away from him responded to his impulses? It's amazing how far scientists have come in replicating human body parts. Mildly depressing how far producers will go to whip up ersatz excitement when the real thing is there for the taking.
Nashville is a title with a distinguished pedigree, and if you're after a premium slice of heartland Americana I'd still point you to Robert Altman's film of that name. If you want a standard showbiz melodrama, though, you might find More4's latest American import to your taste, effectively Dallas with steel-string guitars instead of oil. Rayna's star is waning, but she ain't ready to "hang up her rhinestones just yet". Juliette's is waxing, with the help of Auto-tune and teen hysteria. Naturally, they hate each other but share a taste in men and musicians. T-Bone Burnett supplies the music and Powers Boothe a very creditable JR equivalent as Rayna's scheming pappy.
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