The Guardian 13 July, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 17 July — Sat 23 July


It is only a little over 150 years since the great stone cities of the Maya were rediscovered by John Lloyd Stephens. His revelation in 1841 that a mighty civilisation lay buried in the jungle of Mexican Yucatan, a peninsula the size of England separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea, was one of the great discoveries of the age.

However, Stephens' discoveries set archaeologists several baffling problems: how to read the pictographs that adorned the Mayan ruins and how to explain the curious fact that the Mayan civilisation, unlike other early civilisations, did not arise on the banks of a mighty river. In fact, much of the Mayan world seemed devoid of even the smallest river or lake.

A Soviet researcher eventually cracked the code of Mayan pictographs. As for the absence of rivers, Secrets of the Maya Underworld, screening in Lost Worlds (SBS 7.30pm Sunday), shows that their cities were established beside freshwater pools, or cenotes (cavities), dotted across the area, that are in fact gateways to an incredible labyrinthine system of underground rivers.

This secret world of contorted caverns, underground waterways and dark recesses alive with stalactites, stalagmites, bats and some very ancient species, is only now being explored.

The program follows two explorers and divers, American Sam Meacham and British-born Steve Bogaerts, as they mount explorations deep into the Yucatan's interior. They are attempting to track the thousands of cenotes and see how this underground system links up, underneath the jungle.

This week's final instalment of Dramatically Black (SBS 8.30pm Sunday) comprises two more short dramas from the Australian Film Commission's Indigenous Unit: The Djarn Djarns directed by Wayne Blair and Plains Empty directed by Beck Cole.

The Djarn Djarns won the Crystal Bear at the Kinderfilmfest held in conjunction with this year's Berlin Film Festival. Plains Empty was screened in competition at the Sundance Festival earlier this year.

The Wave That Shook the World, in the Cutting Edge timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) is a repeat of the excellent documentary that examined the causes of the tsunami that destroyed hundreds of towns and villages and killed over 220,000 people last year.

The program uses minute-by-minute pictures of what happened that fateful morning. It also employs computer generated images (CGI), dramatic reconstructions and the human stories of individuals caught up in the catastrophe to explain in detail the science behind the tsunami of December 26.

Antarctica, a mercifully brief home movie screening on Catalyst this week (ABC 8.00pm Thursday), is a glimpse of the sort of filmmaking the Howard government's funding policy is forcing the ABC to adopt.

The ABC could not afford to send Catalyst reporter and palaeontologist Dr Paul Willis down to remote Seymour Island off Antarctica, an island famous for its vast fields of fossils. So he had to hire himself out as tour guide for a cruise ship, run by an Australian adventure holiday group who were eager to "open up new scientific experiences to travellers".

Willis took a camera with him and essentially shot a home movie of the Seymour Island part of the trip, trying to make it look as much like a documentary as he could. This isn't low-budget filmmaking, it's no-budget filmmaking.

As for the fossils, they are certainly there, but they are mostly small and unspectacular fragments, as the glum faces of the tourists trudging across the sands would seem to confirm.

It was inevitable that some­thing as fundamental as DNA would eventually run up against capitalist entrepreneurs who figured they could make money from it. This situation arose most in the 1990s with the Human Genome Project.

A massive enterprise — to catalogue all the genes that carry the instructions to make a human being — this was initially begun by an international consortium of scientists working in various countries, with all results made available to all via the Internet.

But very soon, in addition to this public project there was a private project, whose aim was to identify genes first and patent them, forcing all future researchers and companies to pay a fee for looking at or using any human gene. Potentially a gold mine.

The public project had moral right on their side but the private project had the cash and hence the bigger, faster computers. The private team was going to get there first, which would have created an international scientific, and probably diplomatic, storm.

Fortunately, I suppose, Pres­ident Bill Clinton stepped in to force the two sides to work together. As the head of the public project said at the time, "The only race we are in [now] is the human race."

This public stoush over scientific knowledge versus corporate greed is the subject of this week's episode of DNA, The Human Race (ABC 8.30pm Thursday).

There's plenty of conflicting loyalties in the new series of Silent Witness (ABC 8.30pm Fridays). Amanda Burton stars as Professor Sam Ryan, clinical pathologist and crime solver for the Home Office, but don't expect her to stick around much longer.

In fact, Silent Witness looks as though it's preparing to do a Taggart.

The first two episodes of the new series are set largely in Northern Ireland, and apart from conflicting professional loyalties there are personal conflicts, ruptured friendships and re-discovered family ties to be factored in.

And a bombshell at the end of episode two.

MI5, Britain's internal security agency, used to spy on — and when deemed expedient, fit up — Soviet intelligence agents, Irish nationalists and anyone the least bit progressive, including all left wing trade union leaders and "agitators", Labour Party MPs, peace activists, anti-apartheid activists, Communists of course, and so on.

The BBC series Spooks, a new series of which begins this week (ABC 9.25pm Fridays), would have us believe that the only people targeted by MI5 these days are "terrorists".

Ho, ho — pull the other one.

In the first episode of this series, amidst plenty of killing and double crosses, all passing for high drama, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee is trying to take control of MI5, something which must not be allowed.

The program is well constructed and competently acted but is extremely cynical, so cynical in fact that I found it impossible to find a character or an issue I could care about. So I turned it off.

In Warming By The Devil's Fire, this week's instalment of The Blues: A Musical Journey (ABC 10.15pm Saturdays), director Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding, To Sleep with Anger) explores his own past as a young boy who was shuttled back and forth between Los Angeles and Mississippi in 1955 — musically torn between a mother who loved the blues and a grandmother who believed that the blues was the devil's music.

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