The Weekend's Television: Wonders of the Solar System, Sun, BBC2
A Kick In The Head – the Lure of Las Vegas, Sat, BBC2

Greatest shows on Earth

You need to be able to cope with rhapsody if you want to watch a popular-science programme these days.

Wonders of the Solar System offers a good example of the standard template, in which the presenter of choice pops up for a quasi-religious invocation before the service itself begins: "We live on a world of wonders," exclaimed Brian Cox, "a place of astonishing beauty and complexity. We have vast oceans and incredible weather... giant mountains and breathtaking landscapes." Yeah, yeah, you think, as the orchestra surges in the background. Heard it before. Only a few weeks ago, in fact, when Iain Stewart said almost identical things at the beginning of How Earth Made Us, his series on natural geography. And in both cases the pumped-up sense of awe conveys a thread of anxiety, despite itself. "Will they switch over?" it implicitly asks. Have we promised enough to keep them on board until the gears engage?

The odd thing is that these boilerplate effusions only delay the moment when you get to the real thing – authentic reverence first making itself apparent in Wonders of the Solar System when Cox had just finished explaining that in a single second the Sun radiates into space a million times the annual energy consumption of the United States. "We worked that out," he continued, "by using some water, a thermometer, a tin and an umbrella. And that's why I love physics." That's why quite a lot of viewers love Brian Cox too, I guess, because he bridges the gap between our childish sense of wonder and a rather more professional grasp of the scale of things. And even if you can't entirely suppress the suspicion that this series exists, not because the BBC urgently felt that cosmology needed addressing, but because they needed to find something for Brian Cox to do next, as a primer in cosmic dazzlement it works very well indeed.

It was, necessarily, an Earth-bound account of outer space, at least as far as the presenter went. But they hadn't stinted on the Earth they covered. They went off to Varanasi to watch a total eclipse (more unforced and unscripted wonder from Cox), to the Arctic Circle to catch the aurora borealis and to the Iguazu Falls on the Parana River, where Cox explained how the energy of the sun keeps the clockwork of the water cycle wound up. It isn't a perpetual motion machine though. One day, the sun will have consumed all its fuel and the terminal sunset will begin. Fortunately it's five billion years away, which is probably enough to stir complacency in even the most fervent environmentalist.

There was an interesting programme somewhere inside A Kick in the Head – the Lure of Las Vegas, Alan Yentob's profile of the desert city, but it had got tangled up with some over-familiar ones. There was the standard Las Vegas by Proxy tourist trip (as seen recently in Piers Morgan on Las Vegas, which also featured Las Vegas's self-advertising mayor and its troubled city centre development). And there was the Las Vegas Apotheosis documentary (as seen recently in Elvis in Vegas). A Kick in the Head had some high points of its own, including a compelling encounter with Wayne Newton, who looks as if he has a dwarf hidden behind him hauling on his hairline. But you never quite got an uncluttered sight of its central theme, which was Las Vegas as ambiguous cultural artefact, an expression of American genius that nobody can be sure whether they should be ashamed or proud of. The dilemma was neatly framed up by a local artist: "Everything here is fake... but it's really fake." It would have been nice to have a bit more on that.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?