Television Review

Robert Hanks
Sunday 01 August 1999 23:02

IT'S NOT so long ago that religion tended to be depicted in fiction as the realm of the dogmatic and the inhumane. Scientists, by contrast, were crusading, decent people, struggling with their consciences and with the truth. These days, the position is reversed: scientists are regularly shown to be appallingly blinkered, rigid types, while the religious ones are those with the nuanced, kindly world view. Take last night's play, Wings of Angels (Sun BBC2), presented under the Horizon banner.

It was based on the true story of David Lack (played by Paul Rhys), an ornithologist who found himself caught up in the conflict between God and Darwin when, just after his discovery of facts about Galapagos finches that confirmed the doctrine of natural selection, his beloved told him she couldn't marry a man who didn't share her faith. In the blue corner, God was represented by Lack's fiancee, Elizabeth Silva (Emma Fielding) - all quivering lips, melting looks and ruefully repressed passion; in the red corner was Julian Huxley (Ian Hogg), a stiff-backed old buffer who ranted against every critique of Darwin. Well, who would get your vote?

It promised to be an un- usually stimulating play; in the event, it was unusually dull. This was partly because it hinged on some fairly subtle scientific issues to do with marginal competitive advantage at the limits of species's ranges, which didn't take easily to dramatisation. But it was more because Philip Martin, who wrote and directed the film, applied far too little imagination to either job - emotionally cliched situations filmed in dark, boxy rooms. In the end, Lack persuaded himself that he could believe in something outside science, and was confirmed into the C of E (which has always had a gratifyingly vague streak about these things). This was presented as some sort of triumphant resolution; but it felt more like a necessary fudge, a piece of double-think. That may be acceptable theology, but it doesn't work as drama.

Stargate SG-1 (Sun C4) was also in the business of reconciling science and the super- natural, but did it with rather more spunk. The basic premise - that the gods of the ancient Egyptians were actually visitors from an advanced extraterrestrial civilisation - hit just the right level of silliness for a trashy television series. When the ill-assorted band of GIs and scientists launched themselves through the Stargate to another galaxy, they found themselves in a world familiar to Star Trek fans, inhabited by conveniently anglophone aliens and nubile women. Nobody actually said "On Earth, we have a thing called freedom", or "Teach me more about this `Kissing', Captain," but it was touch and go.

To add to the delight of the whole exercise, the part of the straight- arrow tough guy was taken by Richard Dean Anderson, best known as the Blue Peter-style action hero, MacGyver, who would regularly rig together kitchen implements, baking powder and Plasticine to make, oh, bombs, buzz-saws, high-velocity rifles. There was an appropriately makeshift feel about most of the script: like any MacGyver device, it was a terrible mess, but in its clumsy, unconvincing way, it did the job.

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