Thursday, 16 December 2010

Entertain, Inform, Educate, Exterminate: 60 years of science on TV

Robert Webb narrates Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV with a combination of reverence and pith that only a true fan looking on at a valued but odd member of his family can. It was 90 minutes of the kind of television you rarely see these days. A trip down memory lane that pressed so many buttons for me that It was all I could do to keep my trap shut lest I miss the absolutely delicious sarcasm drizzled liberally throughout the programme.

I would disagree violently with only one assertion, "Doctor Who ran out of steam ... so was cancelled". I Know there may be a few people at the corporation who still feel the need to defend the reprehensible stifling of  our Doctor for 16 years, and I smell the not so subtle hand of the editor upstairs. But it seems they couldn't change the comment of one person who said it as it is, Doctor Who was taken away from us, and we never lost interest. There that feels better. Just out of curiosity, how many of you watching last night wanted to chuck something at the telly when you heard that?

As retrospectives go, this omnibus, as near as complete history, ran us through the early nerdtastic formats of early science as the saviour of humanity, past the scary death from outer space to the wow bang weird science of the World of Tomorrow and it's successor programmes.  The list of of academics who impacted my life so deeply is too long to list here , but if you watch the film, you'll see most of them. Jacob Bronowski, James Burke, David Attenborough and of course the grand master Sir Patrick Moore. All these men shaped the curiosity, critical thinking and love of science that has never left me. No I did not become a physicist or an astronomer, I did not yearn to fly in space, but I never lost the deep and abiding interest in how things work. From childhood to adult I have been well served by the network that can boast, but does not, the fact that even today, well over 80 % of all English language, science, nature and other assorted deep thinky things  on telly around the world are made by the BBC. Furthermore, these same programmes, including some that are over 40 years old, have been translated into more languages than you can shake a stick at. This of course assumes that you can shake a stick at a language and that the language itself is somehow moved by this gesture. Isn't communication fun?

Some of the best Whiz bang shows never once came close to predicting the future, let alone MY  future. If anything the shiny tech based world they envisioned never came because the microchip changed the shape and the way things are done. We still use petrol based cars and no one wants to live in the city of the future, in fact the city of the future is the village we saw in The Good Life with bendy Felicity. Which is not to say that the science of  BBC's Horizon did not foresee it. Interestingly enough, the people who did get it right the most were the Sci fi writers. Douglas Adams and his Hitch Hikers Guide to the Universe and it's friendly cover advising us DON'T PANIC, is the laptop with a sense of humour I curse, love. loathe and cannot live without now. I'm still waiting for the transporter beam and the sonic screwdriver, but pretty much they got it right. We don't really live any differently now than we did in 1960, except that we have more channels ( most of which are shite), we still eat the food of our parents and grand parents, we recycle, we have started going back to pre 1950's simpler low tech gadgets and we still deliver death and mercy in the same old fashioned non nuclear ways on the battle field. And yet even in this, we have science to thank for steering us clear of folly time and again.

What I love about British Science fiction is the very large tongue in the exaggerated cheek that co exists with the doom and gloom of Blake 7 ( I don't care if it was made on 50p and looked ticky tacky), Survivors or the apparently 3 different versions of Day of the Triffids.  No other culture has given us Red Dwarf on the one hand and the multitudinous destructions of London by Daleks, viruses and the nuclear menace. That last one was a comedy starring the brilliant Spike Milligan ( The Bed Sitting Room ). As a Trekie and a Doctor Who fan, if forced to choose, if forced to pick only one of those epic cultural icons that have changed the very way I speak and think, I'd have no choice but to support the Mother of all modern Science Fiction drama adventure.....Doctor Who. Bot have had monsters so flimsy and un scary, as to laugh, both have been moralist at times, But only Doctor Who has a smart ass, oddly dressed, egghead nutter as the hero. Also not without merit is the simple fact that of the two programmes, Doctor Who has most of the time supplied me with a bevy of beautiful companions that has allowed me and my mates to make endless lists of which actress/companion is the fittest and which I would, given the chance ( which of course is slim to none) sleep with. The lovely thing about our Sci Fi is how it still works regardless of how silly the props are or primitive the effects. Unlike a certain continent to the west, Brit Sci Fi is less concerned with the minutia of engineering and real fake science and allows for the occasional touch of magic to prevail, witness Big Bang 2 in The Pandorica Opens, or the sheer insanity of Red Dwarf.

We can have a fractal on the wall
The world has the Labour Party and the BBC to thank for scientists looking like the mandolin player from Lindisfarne telling us about quantum physics on a black board aided by the occasional animation and cut out. They assumed some subjects would be hard to grasp the first time and that we would persevere. That same spirit continued in fascinating programmes like Connections that challenged our imaginations and minds to not only understand but reach past the information on offer. The modern crop of attractive, still ever so slightly barking mad scientists proudly displaying their inner 8 year old on the BBC are worthy successors to the long line of people who first  tried teaching us how the world worked and why we need to be curious and question if we are ever to evolve as a species.

What could have become 90 minutes of tired filler, was a fun trip down memory lane that still, managed to entertain, inform and educate. Yet another reason to support the BBC any time that really nice guy Jeremy Hunt tries to get to close Auntie Beeb with with his slimy little fingers.

If you had been thinking of anything other than this after Top Gear tonight, I URGE YOU in the strongest possible terms to watch Dirk Gently ( Holistic detective) On BBC4 tonight. I'm holding out high expectations for Douglas Adams's last series of books to be translated to the screen as well and as respectfully as HHGTTG was first go around. Fingers crossed we won't be disappointed.

I see there's room for a bit of kvetching about my beloved Newcastle United. I should be pleased we beat Pool 3-1, I should be pleased our best player Andy Carroll is on the best form he's been on in ever. But I'm mostly ambivalent about the whole thing. The manager who got us out of fizzy pop and kept us mid table despite no budget in the summer and no prospect of any in the January window, was sacked on the flimsiest of excuses and replaced by a man who is best known for taking teams into relegation and is at best a tepid replacement. If you were going to get a new manager, I would have thought you would hire somebody of the calibre of the Special One, or perhaps an unhappy continental manager who's been sniffing around for a ticket to England. But no, we got Alan Pardew, on a 5 year contract no less. I don't for a second think it's worth the paper it's printed on and furthermore, at the first sign of trouble, Mr Relegation will be gone, 5 year contract or no. Of course it's going to cost more to be shot of him , but does the Fat Comptroller care? Mike Ashley lives these days it seems to piss off the supporters and nothing else. I live in fear that the news will bring a report confirming our worst nightmare ... Andy Carroll has been sold to some rich Southern side for a packet of money Pardew will never see.

That's enough  for now, see you all tomorrow after Top Gear and Dirk Gently!

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