The Guardian 11 May, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun May 15 — Sat May 21

Frankenstein: Birth Of A Monster (ABC 9.25pm Sunday) is the story of Mary Shelley and the creation of her masterpiece Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus.

Professor Robert Winston draws numerous parallels between the novel and Mary's tragic life. The daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary ran away with the revolutionary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 16. He was already married with two children.

Winston evinces a distinct antipathy towards Shelley, whose political convictions he sneeringly dismisses. He also has a tendency to sniff with ill-disguised disapproval at the bohemian lifestyle favoured by the Romantics, especially the triangular ménage of Percy, Mary and Mary's 15-year-old stepsister Jane Clairmont.

The numerous untimely deaths in Mary's life (only one of her children survived infancy, for example, and Percy was himself drowned at 29) would seem designed to break anyone's spirit, but far from being uncommon, were actually typical of life (and life expectancy) in the first half of the 19th century.

Mary Shelley went on to write numerous other books, including an apocalyptic science fiction work in 1826 depicting the end of the world due to plague (The Last Man). However, unlike Professor Winston, she ardently championed the work of her late husband.

The serious intent and depth of Frankenstein becomes very apparent in the course of this imaginative account of its genesis and its author's sad trials.

When I received the tape of the four-part series The Shearers (ABC 8.00pm Tuesdays), I thought, "Oh good, a documentary series about workers." But I was only partly right.

The essence of documentary is that it portrays the reality of its subject. The Shearers, however, is not so much about the reality of shearing as about the artificiality of a four-week competitive shearing school.

We follow 12 students competing in the school, as most are eliminated until only two remain.

Like all misnamed "reality TV", this Tasmanian effort is really soap opera rather than documentary. Two of the students, Lisa Hansch and Collin Lawrence have "personal hurdles" to overcome.

"Collin, a woodcutter and former meat worker, has an anger management problem and Lisa has to learn to use technique to compensate for her lack of physical strength." In the first episode "Collin gets angry when he loses control of a sheep and is threatened with expulsion.

"Lisa becomes ill and is unable to shear for a day. She is worried that this may jeopardise her chance of being selected for the next stage."

You get the idea.

Screening in the Cutting Edge timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday), the PBS Frontline program Made In China, according to its own publicity, "explores the relationship between US job losses and the American consumer's insatiable desire for bargains". Leaving aside job losses for the moment, I would think the American consumer — far from having an "insatiable desire for bargains" — was simply trying to stretch an already meagre pay packet as far as possible.

But what else can you expect from a White House cheer squad like PBS Frontline?

Most of the program is actually concerned with the way the world's biggest company, retail giant Wal-Mart does business. The Walton family's company has such market clout it can, and does all the time, force down the prices it pays for products, until American producers can no longer afford to supply it.

Former exploited colonial and neo-colonial countries like China are only too willing to build up their own economies by supplying US companies' "insatiable demand" for lower-priced goods. In 2003, the US had a US$120 billion trade deficit with China.

Professor Gary Gereffi from Duke University says that 80 percent of Wal-Mart's 6000 suppliers now use production facilities in China. By Wal-Mart's own estimate it imports $US15 billion of Chinese goods a year.

The program predictably points to China as the culprit, rather than to capitalism and Walmart in particular for its policy of forcing down prices it will pay for goods, leaving its suppliers with no option than seeking lower waged countries.

A new series of Doctor Who begins this week (ABC 7.30pm Saturdays) and I am pleased to say that it is very good indeed. It's a welcome change to see a sci-fi series that is not an excuse for militarist posturing, unlike say Stargate or the most recent Star Trek series.

I used to enjoy the original long-running Dr Who series, especially the ones with Tom Baker as the Doctor. In the new series, the Doctor is played by Christopher Eccleston in what appears to be an attempt to emulate the jocular Tom Baker style.

Indeed, the new series combines the adventures typical of the earlier series with a sense of the comic that derives more from The Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Red Dwarf.

The new series of Dr Who does however have virtues of its own: the young woman who becomes the Doctor's accidental helper (played by Billie Piper) is much more pro-active and decisive than before. The special effects are of course much improved and it's pitched at a slightly older audience.

There are some odd alterations, too: each story is told in a single 45-minute episode, the Doctor is now the last of his race, his planet has been destroyed, and the control console of the TARDIS (his time-travelling space ship) is now a curious mixture of sci-fi electronics and Heath Robinsonesque mechanics (involving the strangely frantic use of what appears to a bicycle pump).

Eccleston is only on board for one season, and will metamorphose into yet another Doctor after 13 episodes. Made for BBC Wales, and using a variety of writers and directors, the series promises to be an enjoyable addition to Saturday nights.

Followers of the round-ball code should be aware that the Final of the 2005 FA Cup takes place this week (SBS 10.30pm Saturday). Manchester United go up against their old rivals Arsenal.

Just note that, although the telecast starts at 10.30pm, kick-off is not until midnight. I dread to think what they will fill those 90 minutes with.

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