TELEVISION / It's space opera, Jim, but not as we know it

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THE Centauri ambassador is mad as hell. He's got a hairstyle that makes him look as if he's shoved his head into a Particle Beam Accelerator and an accent that comes from 15 light-years east of Warsaw. As if that isn't enough, his bungling assistant makes Norman Wisdom look like the Dalai Lama and the Narns (no connection with the Peshwari Narns) have attacked the peaceful agricultural community of Ragesh 3. Unless Commander Dahl can get the Bahjis to vote for sanctions, it could mean war. It's a bad day on Babylon 5 (C4), an orbital United Nations building or, as the unsmiling preamble has it, 'humans and aliens wrapped in two million five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal'.

It feels heavier, to be honest. The series is set in 2258, by which time we appear to have established contact with a wide variety of alien life-forms - all of whom look like humans with a cast-iron malpractice case against their plastic surgeon. In the grubby realm of interplanetary relations little has changed. The League of Non-Aligned Worlds has to be coaxed into position on certain issues, and an election back home means the Commander's hands are tied over Narn aggression (no connection with the Narn aggression pact). The performance of the principals suggests that sometime in the next century humans will discover a way to breed with trees.

Babylon 5 apparently won its makers an Emmy for special effects, and there is a certain amount of whooshing about in starfields to take your mind off the dialogue. It was never likely to be enough. 'I will confess that I look forward to the day when we have cleansed the universe of the Centauri and carved their bones into little fruits for Narn children,' sneers the Narn ambassador, keeping as straight a face as a Narn can. My favourite line, though, came when he goaded his enemy with a bit of urbane charm in the intergalactic commissary. 'Would you like some spoo?' he said, holding up a plate with villainous politesse. 'It's quite fresh this week.' The S in spoo is silent, by the way.

If you want real skulduggery, you have to come down to earth, to the Terran community of Westminster, where the merciless Dame Shirli made it her mission to cleanse the universe of Labour-voters and carve their bones into woggles for boy scouts. I doubt if Panorama's delayed report on council gerrymandering would really have affected the recent election result in Westminster - true, it made a good case for a systematic and expensive campaign to keep the borough blue, but given that the plan appears to have worked, it doesn't seem very likely that the beneficiaries would have expressed their revulsion through the ballot box.

Dame Shirley called her strategy Building Stable Communities or BSC for short (an acronym which council officials soon rejigged as Building Safer Constituencies). Marginal wards were given special attention in terms of council services, and every opportunity was used to change their political complexion, from closing down hostels for the homeless to rushing through planning applications for prestige developments. John Ware's report added more detail to the damning report by the District Auditor and was assisted by a certain dry contempt in the editing. The account of how one hostel for young people had been sold off cheap to a developer was followed by Cardinal Hume's appeal at the time to the politicians' better nature: 'I believe fundamentally that there is in human beings a side of them which is generous and decent, and I have no doubt that I would find all that among the councillors.' It's what they call a leap of faith, I understand.