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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn