Television: Why I'm loving the alien

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FIRST COMES the red, blobby title sequence, and then it's the Second World War. There has been a bombing raid, but what has fallen to earth is not a Heinkel, nor a Messerschmitt. It is probably a ZZxyppt 5, or whatever they call them in Alienland, whence it obviously hails.

A group of soldiers come to take a shufti (and a few careless potshots) at a strange-looking bloke in a surfing suit made of Bacofoil, and wearing a cycling helmet. The concerned lieutenant (whom we know we will meet again) lifts the visor. "Is he German?" asks a squaddie. Well, he's got a white, cross-looking face, a bald head and dark shadows round his eyes. So he could be Nosferatu. On the other hand, he's probably an ...

So begins Invasion Earth (BBC1, Friday) - a long-awaited successor to all those spaceman-in-a-sandpit classics (Blake's 7, Dr Who). And, despite some neat special effects, reassuringly within half an hour we are watching a spaceman trying to climb out of a sandpit. He's a good alien who has fallen to earth to warn us of an invasion of Nosferatu aliens.

But who will interpret him? As ever there is a conflict between the military (brave, but unimaginative) and the hero-boffins (innovative, but flighty). The latter are, of course, a woman/young black bloke combo. And Dr Amanda Tucker is the one who gets all the "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio" sci-fi cliches; you know, lines like: "Someone ... or someTHING", or "Not no one ON Earth ... No one FROM Earth!"

These dreadful lines point to her split personality. On the one hand she is supposed to be a fearsomely bright Jodie Foster type - her bright- eyed wee daughter is the product of a conscious, if callous raid on the genes of a Cambridge professor, who was then unceremoniously dumped. On the other, Dr Tucker - eyes hyperthyroidally wide and lips ever apart - seems to possess the emotional and intellectual depth of, say, Samantha Fox. One cannot help feeling that the professor got off lightly.

Her counterpoint is the general. For some reason (a co-production deal with the Americans perhaps), Britain has run out of generals, so he is an American from Nato. And he is played by an actor (Fred Ward) who looks as though he was not so much born as created by the collision of tectonic plates. "Craggy" does no justice to his features. There are tufa formations in Cappadocia that are less rough-hewn; an average-sized rock climber could do a scree-run down the man's face, from the furrowed limestone of his brow, to the basalt deposit of his jaw.

Perhaps it is the heaviness of this lower mandible that prevents him from speaking in anything other than staccato rumbles. His longest lines include "Find out!", "Keep searching!", "Bring it here!" and the - for him - Proustian and occasionally polysyllabic command, "Secure the area! No one goes in till I get there!" Future conversations between him and Dr Tucker will seem like entries to the Olympic Stilted Prose competition.

Finally, a few words on the technology. The alien spaceship is made up of all those curves that have been de rigueur since Alien was first screened and the Ford Cortina was scrapped. With its saggy, rounded lines the object looks like nothing so much as a Lucian Freud nude. The term "mother ship" never felt so appropriate. Watch and enjoy.

One of the purposes of the highly educative Stonehenge (BBC2, Saturday), was to show that - among other things - perambulant Nosferatus did not build our most famous ancient monument. Using lovely computer graphics, and a good clear narrative, the programme suggested the probable genesis of the henge.

Praise enough; now let's be horrid. Stonehenge was presented by a Dr Tony Spawforth, who conformed to the new image of screen archaeologists, by appearing mousy, boyish and straggly. They all look as if their enthusiasm for their subject has made it impossible to find the time to get a haircut or buy a decent shirt. It has been my sad experience that otherwise sensible women want to mother these archae-types, and thus pass up opportunities for dalliances with more deserving men.

What Spawforth does deserve is to be ritually dismembered henge-style for his appalling opening links. In quick succession he used the phrases: "most baffling of all", "bygone age", "fresh insights", "lifting the veil", "shrouded in mystery" and "yielding its deepest secrets". This sets an unacceptably low standard of writing for television. Stop it right now.

That's got the pompous bit over. Though I was also baffled by Spawforth's habit of trying to explain the deep past by reference to present-day anthropology. So our forefathers and mothers - we were told - were simultaneously into ancestor corpse-worship (like modern Madagascans), shamanism (like Siberians and Eskimos), or totemism (like Amerindians). My my, what an eclectic and talented bunch they were! Other civilisations might possess one or two religious particularities, but our lot had them all. No wonder they built an impossible henge as well. For such multi-talented folk it must have been a breeze.

And what a pig's ear their 21st-century successors are making of things. The Sex Trade: a Money Programme Special Report (BBC2, Wednesday) took an interesting, if slightly prissy, look at the sex business in Britain, and decided that (a) there was a lot of it going on and (b) that this was bad news, although - being The Money Programme - it couldn't seem to make up its mind whether ruthless exploitation of women or tax avoidance was the real problem.

But it did give us some interesting figures. Such as the fact that the billion we fork out for the sex industry is "as much as we spend on books, and three times as much as we spend on the Church of England". That latter was a gloriously incongruous choice for comparison, unless the point was being made that we expend a far greater amount on vice than on virtue. But then, vice just is more expensive: Belshazzar's Feast must have cost a whole lot more than, say, the loaves and fishes.

How gratifying it is, then, when vice is allowed to serve virtue. In Las Vegas, Mormons own a lot of the high-earning action (they are forbidden to gamble themselves), and then pay a tithe to their church. As a result of gambling money a $15m Latterday Saints cathedral rises over the Vegas skyline.

I owe this information to the excellent Timewatch: Las Vegas and the Mormons (BBC2, Tuesday), which told the story of how the wages of sin are often anything but death. In 1900, Vegas was a dusty place with 19 inhabitants ("There weren't nothing here but rattlesnakes and Injuns," said one old Mormon revealingly). But three things combined to make Vegas take off: the railroad, the Hoover Dam and Nevada's almost unique toleration of gambling. Sorry, four things. Add to that list the business acumen of the Mormons of neighbouring Utah, who came in and ran a town that was - in their own strict terms - a Gomorrah.

Men with fabulous names like Shannon Bybee, Lamar Foremaster and Irwin Molasky testified to the cooperation between Mormon bankers and politicians on the one hand, and legends like Bugsy Siegel, Jimmy Hoffa and Howard Hughes on the other. Bybee, himself a Mormon and captioned as "Professor of Casino Management", provided the rationale for this willingness to make money out of ungodliness. "Mormons don't believe in war," he said. "But people are involved in the army. It's not a perfect world." Now, ain't that God's own truth.