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
Monday 08 March 2010
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.
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