The Guardian 8 June, 2005

TV programs worth watching
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Who were "the men and women who built Australia"? According to the ABC and its new "reality" series Outback House (ABC 7.30pm Sundays) they were the squatters, those "courageous entrepreneurs who, throughout the 19th century, ventured into the unexplored wilderness of the outback armed with dreams of making their fortune".

The bulk of the people in the bush were poor, but drovers, boundary riders, bullockies and shearers are not picturesque enough for your modern "reality" TV program. If you are going to get a bunch of people to pretend to live "like they did in the olden days", it's got to be upmarket, hasn't it?

So the people in Outback House will live as 19th century squatters on Oxley Downs, a 10,000-acre sheep station. Just like your typical outback person did.

Like hell he (or she) did.

Two series with a scientific bent start this week on SBS. The first is Mythbusters (SBS 7.30pm Mondays), which seeks to investigate the bizarre claims of urban legends and misconceptions about all manner of things, by putting them to the test using the rigours of modern science.

Is it possible to get sucked into an airplane vacuum toilet? Can you explode at the service station if you use your mobile phone? The program uses science to determine the difference between reality and fiction.

But just how do you test whether a coin dropped from a sky-scraper will kill a pedestrian walking below?

The other program is The End of the World as We Know It screening in the Cutting Edge slot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday). Described by the UK's The Guardian as "Excellent" and "Terrifying" by The Observer, this unflinching documentary follows as presenter and writer Marcel Theroux, a self-confessed layman when it comes to scientific matters, travels the world to talk to experts and discover horrifying facts about global warming and the estimated future of our planet.

The icecaps are thinning, the forests are dying, the sea levels are rising and the Gulf Stream is slowing. As Theroux travels through the weird and scary world of climate change, he talks to environmentalists, scientists and economists and meets people who have already had a taste of what global warming has in store for us all. This pertinent documentary explores how the threats posed by climate change call for a radical re-thinking of our priorities.

To save the planet, scientists say we need to slash carbon dioxide emissions by at least 60 per cent which leads Theroux to the unthinkable conclusion: that nuclear power may be the way to avert catastrophe as for all other avenues like carbon sequestration or turbine power it would seem that Earth has run out of time.

What made Black Books (ABC 9.00pm Wednesdays) a success as a comedy series was its flat refusal to make its characters nice or pleasant.

Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) loves his books and hates his customers. He is a manic alcoholic who refuses to do anything that might improve his life.

Bernard's assistant Manny (played by stand-up comic and musician Bill Bailey), who has landed the worst job in the world, considers it a step up from where he was before. Fran, who ran a failed shop next door, is equally unsuccessful at changing her life for the better.

This alienated bunch of misfits provided a platform in the first two series for some delightful flights of fancy, manic and comic at the same time. The episode in which Fran rang the reader of the shipping news with the sexy voice so she could finish masturbating has justifiably become a classic.

The first episode of the new (third) series is not in that class, however. It tries too hard, is frequently forced and unfunny.

Hopefully, it is just a hiccup and later episodes will get back to form.

This week's episode of Space Odyssey on Catalyst (ABC 8.00pm Thursdays) sees our simulated space journey to all the planets of the Solar system go from Mars, where Commander Tom Kirby is caught in a Martian tornado, to a close fly-by of the Sun and then it's on to Jupiter by way of the Asteroid Belt.

The science in this program is one of its main features and is both well done and instructive without being didactic. The problems and dangers associated with flying very close to the sun are rather vividly portrayed, but it was the interplay between crew and ground control over a close encounter with a huge double asteroid that I found most convincing.

Incidentally, the preview tapes of this series carry the notation "BBC buy-in" (the Beeb did not make it themselves) and "Cut down for Catalyst" (presumably we are seeing the shortened version). Which raises the interesting question, couldn't the ABC's under-funded budget these days run to buying the full length series?

As usual, the episode ends with a cliff-hanger: are they about to crash into Jupiter? All rather pointless, really: we're only half way through the series, and since the mission (and the series) would come to a sudden end if they did crash into Jupiter we can safely assume that they survive unscathed.

For the main character in a "police procedural", DCI Tom Barnaby in Midsummer Murders (ABC 8.30pm Fridays) seems to be remarkably free of police procedure. As played by John Nettles, he never seems to be bothered by superiors, or to feel the need to establish an incident room, despite it being standard practice for British police when there has been a murder.

He never has a team of more than his sergeant even though his police station is full of coppers apparently just walking about. Except for the police surgeon none of the other coppers seem to have any role other than to string blue and white striped tape around the scene of the latest murder.

Mind you, Midsomer and surrounding district does seem to be crawling with murderers. Dead bodies pop up in numbers that rival the Black Death.

However, as I said a week or two ago, the new series is better written than the previous ones, particularly as regards the colourful English village settings. This week's episode, Dead In The Water, takes place during Midsomer's regatta week, and it's the body of the Chairman of the Rowing Club that inconveniently bobs up during the first race.

The mixing of middle class gentility (with a dash of the upper classes thrown in) and murder is a very English literary tradition, and this TV series unashamedly apes that tradition. And as you would expect of middle class gentility, it is mildly amusing and mildly intriguing.

The insanity and deviousness of capitalism has taken on cosmic dimensions in this week's episode of the new series of Doctor Who (ABC 7.30pm Saturdays). Actually, it's the second half of a two-parter that started last week with Alien Invasion and continues this week with World War Three.

Despite the title, this is a seriously comic take on the Blair government going to war for purely commercial gain under cover of responding to non-existent "weapons of mass destruction".

The aliens are not an invasion force in fact but an entrepreneurial family firm intent on conning the human race into starting a nuclear war so that the aliens can sell off the resultant radio-active crust as rocket fuel.

The ending, in which No 10 and the British PM get their just desserts, is suitably ironic. And decidedly topical.

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