The Weekend’s Viewing: Richard Hammond Builds a Planet, BBC1 // Atlantis, BBC1
Certain parts of this CGI-heavy show seemed to have been organised more for Hammond's enjoyment than the viewers'
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Sunday 03 November 2013
The best way to understand how Earth came to be, is to recreate what followed the Big Bang, or so goes the theory behind this new BBC science series. To that end, Richard Hammond Builds a Planet staged several experiments demonstrating the key geological processes which, over billions of years, amounted to Creation, all presided over by a Top Gear presenter. In which extended analogy, Richard Hammond is God, presumably? I'm not sure I like where this is going.
The programme's first big stunt involved Hammond standing in the Californian desert and grinning as one hundred monster trucks thundered towards him like a herd of angry buffalo. These trucks contained materials in exactly the same proportions as we'd find on Earth, only a little scaled down from the 5.9 septillion kg estimated mass of our real planet. So, 15 trucks of iron, represented the 15 per cent of our planet which is iron, 30 trucks representing the 30 per cent of oxygen, and so on. Did you know that 93 per cent of the planet is made from only four elements (iron, magnesium, silicon and oxygen)? The other seven per cent is what Hammond called “elemental seasoning”.
The truck stampede was one of the programme's more successful visual demonstrations. Like the vat of molten lava, which showed how the Earth's crust formed, it was both impressive to watch and effective at getting a point across. Others were less successful. The weightless flight, which was supposed to demonstrate electrostatic forces, and the visit to an underground laboratory (which they couldn't resist soundtracking with a James Bond theme) seemed to have been organised more for Hammond's enjoyment than the viewers'. And shouldn't Professor Brian Cox have been presenting this, anyway?
Hammond's plan was evidently to entertain with action, rather than awe. There were lots of fast cuts and CGI effects, which allowed him to stand at the top of an imaginary tower while an asteroid storm took place above is head. We were also asked to consider several exciting counterfactuals: what if the Moon was a little bit closer? (high tides would flood New York and London). What if the Earth was a little bit wobblier? (the surface would be scattered by hurricane-force winds). And, implicitly, what would happen if you tried to make an Armageddon-style disaster movie on a parsimonious BBC budget? (Richard Hammond Builds a Planet).
Saturday's episode of Atlantis forced on us another terrifying sight: Pythagoras greasing up Hercules' ample beer gut in preparation for a wrestling match. If there really is a benevolent Richard Hammond, why would he allow such suffering? Hercules (Mark Addy) was in love and desperate to impress the object of his affections, Medusa (not, at present, sporting her famous serpentine hair-do). Sadly, Medusa didn't seem to share his feelings. If this were Attleborough in Norfolk, Hercules would have had to take “no” for an answer or risk a restraining order, but since it's Atlantis on TV, he had all the magical tools of ancient mythology at his disposal.
After tracking down the witch Circe high in the Mountains of the Sun, he exchanged a tooth of Cerberus for a jar containing the Siren's call, which when it came to attracting beautiful women, was apparently even more potent than Lynx body spray. Hercules soon had a hot date with Medusa, but disastrous consequences followed, setting the stage for a showdown between Circe and Jason.
Six episodes in, and the combination of humour, adventure and pick'n'mix classics in Atlantis continues to deliver quality family entertainment. True, it might fit in just as well in CBBC's teatime slot, but the show's X Factor-challenging ratings, plus the news that the BBC have just commissioned a second series, prove it's already exactly where it belongs.
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