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 Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness