Last night's viewing: Alphas, 5*; This World: Spain’s Stolen Babies, BBC2


Tom Sutcliffe
Wednesday 09 November 2011 18:37

If you've ever been annoyed by television shows that ignore the parking problem, then relief is at hand. While most series simply pretend that traffic wardens don't exist and that an empty parking bay will always appear exactly where the hero needs it, Alphas, 5*'s enjoyably silly science-fiction drama, acknowledges that there can be drawbacks to car ownership. It doesn't get out of hand. They haven't yet fruitlessly looped round the block three times while the baddie saunters off down a pedestrianised street. But on two occasions in last night's pilot episode, forward momentum was briefly allowed to snag on the intractable rigidity of parking regulations. At one point, our heroes had to scrabble through their pockets for the right change for the meter and later one of them got the less than heroic assignment of sitting in the car to make sure it didn't get towed, while the others were employing their special powers to pursue a mind-controlling black-ops type.

It's that kind of science-fiction drama, one that understands that a little bit of bathos and banality will enrich the mix, rather than curdle it. The basic offer is a familiar one, gathering a group of uniquely gifted crime-fighters under the tutelage of a professorial type, Dr Rosen, played by David Strathairn (who comes across here like a fino sherry on a tray of alco-pops). But where X-Men or Heroes give their team members straightforwardly paranormal abilities Alphas presents them as a kind of special-needs class, a group of individuals with a neurological tweak that leaves them – in the favoured language of empowerment – differently abled. So, Rachel can enhance each sense to a superhuman level, but only at the cost of degrading the ones she isn't using. Bill can temporarily give himself extraordinary strength with an adrenalin rush, but he gets a really nasty headache afterwards. And Gary can see and manipulate electro-magnetic wavelengths with his mind but is autistic. Frankly, they may have jumped the shark with Gary – which is a bit premature – but he's actually one of the more entertaining characters if you can shake off the faint unease that autism-as-entertainment should always arouse.

Last night's plot revolved around a classic locked-room killing, which was eventually revealed to have been the work of an as yet unrecruited Alpha called Cameron, who has really terrific hand-eye co-ordination and had been co-opted by the villain to ricochet a bullet through the ventilation inlet of a police interrogation room. Why the normally powered investigators hadn't noticed the significant ding in the ventilator grille, I don't know, but Alphas' admirable respect for the unyielding nature of municipal bylaws isn't always matched by its observation of ordinary world probabilities. Which means it's a bit of a toss-up as to how it will go down with its target audience. On the one hand, the notion of Geek Apotheosis should be deeply appealing to a certain type of sci-fi enthusiast. On the other hand, the fact that the drama plants one foot in the fantastical and one foot in the real world may throw up too many niggles. Won't someone notice, for example, that Bill's talent should really be described as Clumsy Strength, since his ability to burst through walls isn't matched by a capacity to hold on to a bad guy once he's caught him?

This World: Spain's Stolen Babies opened yet another chapter in the history of the Roman Catholic church's crimes against the faithful. The claim that nuns and priests colluded with devout doctors to steal children from "unsuitable" parents and sell them to more appropriate ones sounds, on the face of it, like wild anti-clerical propaganda. But evidence is mounting that it really did happen, and possibly at some scale. Katya Adler's report couldn't quite achieve the resolution it wanted and it left several questions dangling. But you didn't need superhuman powers to know that something stinks here... and pious denial won't make the smell go away.

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