Described by The Guardian as a “wondrous, surreal joy” and hailed by The Independent as “a family television classic” Yonderland follows the adventures of mum, aka The Chosen One, Debbie Maddox (Martha Howe-Douglas) who at the end of series one, rescued Elf and Nick the Stick from try-hard overlord Negatus’ lair and came face to face for the first time with his boss, the evil Imperatrix. Series two will see Debbie fighting an increasingly hard battle to keep her family life and her job as world saver separate.
As husband Peter’s (Dan Skinner) paranoia about strange goings on in the kitchen cupboard grows, Imperatrix intensifies her efforts to rid the realm of the final obstacle to total domination: Debbie of Maddox (the ‘of’ is optional). And all this while Debbie is being endlessly called upon by the Council of Elders to help them with tasks that reach well beyond her Chosen One remit.
It’s safe to say that when we first meet Jeremy Sloane, the eponymous hero of Sky Atlantic’s new tragicomedy, he’s at just about his lowest ebb. It’s safe to say this because the first time we meet him he’s securing a noose around his neck, stepping up onto a chair and kicking it out from under his feet. As shocking an opening gambit as that may sound, it actually becomes one of the show’s best gags and indication of its knack for mining the humorous from the most horrific.
Of course there’s no need to issue a spoiler alert (but if you really want one: spoiler alert!) – Sloane’s suicide bid ends in spectacular failure. He is, after all, played by much-loved funnyman Nick Frost, and no show would ever recover from the image of Frost’s lifeless corpse swinging from a rope. Fortunately, as his very much living body comes crashing down from its temporary suspension, the only way for the rest of the episode to go is up. Albeit up on a mildly uneven gradient.
Mr. Sloane is the creation of Robert Weide, the man who, along with best friend Larry David, brought us the scabrous cult comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. Where the latter is set in contemporary Los Angeles and features the everyday confrontations on an uncensored, unrepentant David, so the former is its polar opposite: set in Watford in 1969, with the mildly repressed company man Sloane at its heart. It is very English and very period.
As we quickly learn, Sloane has recently suffered two tragedies in his life – being abandoned by his wife (played by newly-crowned BAFTA queen Olivia Colman) and losing his job to a former protégé. The ‘comedy’ in ‘tragicomedy’ comes from Sloane’s attempts to pick up the pieces and get his life back on track, starting with a spectacularly misjudged attempt at supply teaching. Although this induces more gentle ‘hah’s than outright LOLz, more often than not there is a comfortable amount of mirth over the course of the hour.
Not everything works. Weide has yet to master the art of conveying ‘pub banter’ in a way that doesn’t come across as cringeworthy as Richard Curtis’s attempts to do ‘working class’, while a lengthy gag involving a self-improvement tape (or rather eight-track tape, as the period detail demands), falls falteringly flat. And it will be interesting to see if Ophelia Lovibond’s American love interest develops beyond the stock fantasy ingénue, introduced as she is in a psychedelic-patterned dress that screams “LOOK AT HOW DIFFERENT I AM FROM EVERY OTHER STAID CHARACTER IN THIS SHOW!” Curb fans looking for its English equivalent will certainly come away disappointed.
The real asset here is Frost, a performer with such a natural propensity for comedy he could probably make castration seem funny. His range extends well beyond funny too, helping flesh Sloane out as a man out of time, content to listen to Gilbert and Sullivan and chase safe domesticity while the revolutions of the 1960s completely pass him by. If Weide can keep things a little less Curtis and fully utilise Colman (who only appears briefly in flashback in this first episode) and Lovibond, enthusiasm for a regular Friday night date with Mr Sloane may become ever less curbed.
Mr Sloane is on Sky Atlantic, Fridays at 9pm
Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids
Taking place a full year after the first series’ happenings, Derek returns with its eponymous 49 year old character, and the rest of the workers at Broad Hill retirement home, in relatively similar standing. Vicky is now a full time employee, Hannah and Tom are together and (thanks to Derek) publicly trying for a baby, whist Kev is still sipping from a Special Brew can and Dougie is moaning about something in his traditional Pilkington ways.
Although a little too coincidental that so many things happen in one day, the first episode of series two acts as a strong re-cap of what life is like in the nursing home, and the beautiful things that have and haven’t changed about the characters. Following from the last episode of season one, we see Derek’s traveling dad move into the nursing home and make an impression on the numerous female residents.
New character Geoff, a strongly opinionated and smarmy fellow, works a few days in the nursing home doing various small tasks. His attitude begins to wind up Dougie and in a comical confrontation we see Dougie leave the nursing home as he can’t take it any more. Something which unfortunately marks the departure of Karl Pilkington from the series.
To replace Karl’s comical relief, drunkard Kev suddenly has a lot more time on screen, yet admittedly he has become much more humorous. As Derek has always tied comedy and drama together through a blend of realistic and larger than life characters, the comical options are limited, which thus forces Kev into the limelight. His humour is akin to the last series, smutty, outspoken and drunk, whilst irony oozes from every utterance; overall it’s effective at stirring up the genteel nursing home pot and providing some adult humour. For example, a drunken song he sings out loud, to the nursing homes silence, ends with the expertly delivered line ‘and a butt plug’.
Yet as in the first season, it’s not all fun and games. Derek, a character who some media outlets have labelled autistic despite Gervais’ contrary claims, has limits in his ability to amuse but this is in exchange for his simplistic yet heart-warming observations. His selflessness, kindness and relentless ability to care permeates throughout the characters in the nursing home, through the warm aesthetic of the show, and into the lives of its audience.
The oddball characters that compose Broad Hill’s staff continue to be endearing and thus overwhelm outside visitors through their sense of respect and community, or as in the case of Vicky and Tom, turn them into members of the clan. There is an underlying sweet message to the show that asks us to reconsider what we deem important in our own lives, and with Derek unwittingly uprooting a well-paid, overly stressed professional in episode two, the outsiders that enter the home are not far removed from the shows audience members.
Overall Derek has come back on the strengths with which it first succeeded and continues to be a highly entertaining show that treads between genre boundaries. Personally, the removal of Dougie takes an edge off of the show for me as he was by far my favourite character, yet admittedly I am a huge Karl Pilkington fan. Multiple people I have spoken to share a similar view on the first series, although Kev is funnier than ever in attempts to replace Dougie and thus far is proving to be a worthy replacement, it could be enough to put some people off the second series.
Perhaps American audiences won’t miss a character with such localised comedy but for UK audiences the dismissal of Dougie will undoubtedly be a sore point; perhaps the unique blend between comedy and drama will continue to hold the show together. I just hope Karl Pilkington shows up for a cameo later in the series.
Derek will be shown on the 23rd of April on Channel 4 at 10pm
‘Monkey Planet’ is soon to be airing its second installment of a three part series. The clue is in the name. This is a series about all the different monkeys (and apes, awkwardly) on our planet. Primate planet seems like it should have been the obvious choice; a nice dose of alliterative accuracy. The series is a bit like ‘who do you think you are’ but hairier, we’re all involved, and the soundtrack includes the Spice Girls, rather than watching a washed-up celebrity find out they had a sheepstealer as a great grandfather.
It’s an important message to convey, a reminder that we humans are not so supremely distinct; we belong firmly within the primate family. During the series we meet a whole host of relatives, some are better looking than others, some are more hygienic, some are remarkably randy, and others will prove capable of organising a highly sophisticated plan to hunt you down and eat you. Fairly typical familial relationships every family is a dysfunctional one. We witness the ‘humanlike’ behaviour of primates across the globe with teeth flossing, cannonballing, marshmallow toasting, and abstract art creating. None of this behaviour should be surprising researchers have amassed evidence for years demonstrating the highly developed cognition of many of our primate counterparts; it’s a reflection of our own arrogance that it remains surprising, but nevertheless, it is delightfully so. The footage captured across eleven countries featuring Borneo, Ethiopia and Japan is quite breathtaking, and the corresponding soundtrack is wellthought and engaging.
It is a series that celebrates the family: its diversity (the proboscis monkey finally gets a look in as a legitimate primate, rather than a plaything of buzzfeed), and its integral nurturing role; another attribute humans too readily claim as their own. It highlights other parallels too, such as an apparent class system in the Japanese macaques, or the ‘hugging wins friends in high
places’ approach taken by the spider monkeys. There are legitimate objections to nature programmes indulging in anthropomorphic explanations of animal behaviour; it can however, have value if the overriding messages reach a wider audience. At least, in the case of Monkey Planet, objections on these grounds must surely be minimal. It is no giant leap to describe primate behaviour in ‘human’ terms.
Bonobos too were granted the attention they are due. It is explained that they, along with the chimpanzees, are most closely related to humans. Their unchaste sexfuelled lives were dealt
with in a delicate and understanding manner. This is usually all too easy turf for sensationalising within our own terms of sexual reference; instead it was aptly presented as a daily occurrence for Bonobos with important destressing benefits. It’s just a shame he didn’t talk more about lesbian sex though. No, really. The sexual pursuits of Bonobos are not limited to heterosexual possibilities; they frequently engage in all manner of combinations.
George McGavin (identifiable as the clothed primate) can not be faulted for his presentation of the series. His own personal interest in the subject matter allows the marvel of things to be clearly explained, whilst avoiding any possibility of being patronising. He is endearing, and clearly enjoying himself; he knows he’s got the best job in the world, to quote: “I’ve got a macaque on my shoulder flossing his teeth, you couldn’t make it up.” He has a charismatic, if understated delivery. Beautifully exemplified standing atop one of the tallest trees in the rainforest, lookingdown and describing it as ‘alarming’; or when he exclaimed: ‘I’ve never seen so much mess in my life. It’s like a teenage sleepover’.
This series is not about lowering humans to their animal ancestry, rather it’s about raising nonhuman primates to the platform they are entitled to. As George reveals to us the beautiful array, and the extraordinary capabilities, of the primate family, he rightfully suggests that we should be ‘proud to be a primate’.
Watch Monkey Planet here
Monkey Planet is on BBC 1 on Wednesday April 9
Given just how phenomenally popular it has become, it’s hard to imagine that the Game of Thrones almost never made it to our television screens at all. But according to star Sophie Turner, the pilot episode was so substandard that US broadcaster HBO was ready to pull the plug. They didn’t, of course – the pilot was re-shot, three epic seasons followed and Game of Thrones went on to become the world’s most popular (and pirated) television series ever.
So here we are on the verge of a fourth season (unless you’re part of the scarily committed brigade that stayed up to watch Sky Atlantic’s US simulcast at 2am this morning, you bleary-eyed thing you). With the Lannister’s betrayal putting marital bliss to the sword in the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ episode and the ascent of Daenerys Targaryen and her brood of dragons combining to send fans into hysterics by the end of season three, the global clamour for revenge and retribution ensured #GOT, #GameOfThrones and a myriad other related hashtags littered the Twittersphere for hours on end yesterday.
Under the weight of such expectation, does Season Four opener ‘Two Swords’ live up to the hype? The answer is a categorical ‘Yes!’… and then some. Most impressive is the deftness with which it reintroduces us to what must be the largest cast a drama series has ever seen – and throws in a few new faces to boot. In lesser hands it could have been a mere televisual rogues’ gallery, but under the direction of showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss the episode not only reacquaints us but sets in motion the narrative strands that will wind their wicked ways across Game of Thrones’ geographically vast backdrop and wrap around the rest of the season.
In the North there’s Jon Snow, fully recovered from the three not-so-Cupid’s arrows fired into his torso by spurned lover Ygritte and ready to rally the Night’s Watch against the horde of Wildling invaders en route to Castle Black. Down in skullduggery central that is Kings Landing, Tyrion Lannister (as deliciously droll as ever thanks to the masterful Peter Dinklage) is struggling to play diplomat with a Dornish Prince who holds more than just a grudge against his family, whilst caught between the duty of an unwanted marriage to poor Sansa Stark and the need to keep his affair with lover Shae from prying eyes.
Across the water to the south Daenerys’ three dragons have hit the troublesome teens, adding to their mother’s burdens as she marches her army onwards to recapture the Iron Throne. And somewhere in between are the odd couple that is Arya Stark and The Hound, who get to bring proceedings to an end with a suitably bloody bang. All with an infusion of the blackest humour that keeps proceedings zipping along, without ever threatening to veer into self-parody. A supremely satisfying scene-setter, Two Swords comes out swinging and connects with every strike.
Game of Thrones Season Four begins tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic
An unexplained suicide, a missing girl, and a stolen Trove – all are mysteries left for Endeavour Morse to solve in the return of the ‘Endeavour’ series.
“Trove”, the first of four films in the second series, reintroduces Inspector Morse, now mentally scarred but with an unchanged desire to solve crimes in his hometown of Oxford. The traumatic ending for Morse in Series One has left him with the challenge of recovering from his past experiences while bringing his life back to normality.
Inspector Morse with his partner Detective Inspector Fred Thursday is immediately called upon to solve a chain of events that follow a chaotic scene during a Broad Street parade. After two students instigate the town scare, an unsuspecting policewoman ends up witnessing a man falling from a building to his death. Shortly after, a beauty pageant participant is reported missing by her distressed father.
While Morse is eager to recommence work again, his return causes difficulties in the office, and more importantly his relationship with Inspector Thursday. When Morse suggests the crimes are all connected by loose evidence, his colleagues, including Thursday, claim he is idealising the situations, and hypothesis that his illness may be affecting his competence. Although a friend and close partner, Thursday is more sceptical than supportive.
Despite Thursday’s lack of trust in Morse’s decisions, the pair act convincingly in their respective roles. Roger Allam, portraying Thursday, exudes the stern exterior of a proper police detective while still expressing concern for Morse’s wellbeing. Facing different circumstances, Shawn Evans, portraying Morse, conveys his insecurity as a result of his past but still uses his intuition to piece the crimes together.
The quality of characters has a large impact on the film’s overall production in addition to the structure of the story. The complex variety of crimes in the first film would seem to obscure the typical conflict-resolution aspect of this detective film but are instead neatly and subtly organized to create a suspenseful storyline, also seamlessly leading to the next film in the series, “Nocturne”. Avoiding the generic format of crime dramas, writer and producer Russell Lewis reinvigorates the genre by developing a lead character with internal struggles along with a multi-dimensional and unpredictable plot.
Endeavour: Trove is available to watch on ITV Player now
Martin Amis’s fictions paint a bleak portrait of England. Under the influence of J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, and to some extent his father, he depicts it as a hostile, culturally baron country, occupied by feckless idiots, drunks and hedonists. His characters are frequently working-class, hold thoroughly untenable opinions and almost invariably they are obsessed with money, both spending and obtaining it.
Amis’s last novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, an unabashed and misdirected sendup of chav culture, was perhaps his most disparaging depiction of England to date. Yet he insists that he’s a patriot, and in Martin Amis’s England sets about trying articulate his true feelings on the place, free from the comical exaggeration of his novels. At first it’s hard to grasp the concept of the programme: the title and synopsis might suggest that this is a documentary in which Amis addresses the camera directly, reciting pre-written monologues about what it means to be English.
But instead the programme takes the form of a long interview, ostensibly recorded at Amis’s home, and is inter-spliced with footage from the BFI’s National Archive. The subject of the sexual revolution is illustrated by shots of groovy girls in mini skirts, while black and white footage of grim looking streets is shown to demonstrate how bleak life in England was after World War II. At times this footage does Amis the disservice of being more interesting than he is. Mostly, though, as is true of his writing, he manages to be entertaining even when his point seems morally questionable.
Over the course of 55 minutes, Amis speaks of a variety of things that he believes define England: the weather, the fall of imperialism, football, multiculturalism and what he calls England’s obsession with pleasure — that is, our supposed propensity for booze, which in turn, he says, leads us to sex. In spite of perhaps this last point, it is hard to imagine that many people would disagree with much of what he says, which is surprising given Amis’s reputation as controversial writer.
Even on the subject of class he’s surprisingly non-contentious. He’s always been obsessed with it, he admits. When he was just a boy he remembers taking a “How Posh Are You” test in The Daily Mail. He was very pleased with himself, convinced that he was scoring well, until he arrived at the last question: What would you name your child? In the upper-class category were names like “George” and “Edward”, he says, and in the lower-class category, next to “Keith”, that hallmark of commonness, was his name. That’s when he threw the newspaper and pen to the floor.
Amis describes his own upbringing as lower middle class, but says he’s never felt sure of his standing in society. On the one hand, he seems to appreciate the culture of the upper classes, but on the other likes to make it known that he’s not above enjoying a lager beer or partaking in a bit of weasel fighting down the old pub. For a man who has written so damningly about members of the working class, he seems strangely envious of low-culture, as though such things are part of an exclusive club for labourers and members of the residuum.
Perhaps the most discrediting thing about Amis is that, although he admits that he has little connection to the working class, he still speaks with complete certainty on the subject, even when it becomes plainly clear that he’s out of his depth. He has a similar air of self-assurance when discussing other things, too, but is at least able to speak somewhat convincingly about post-war England, imperialism and national identity.
Only occasionally is he able to seem mildly self-deprecating, such as when he recalls the first time he ever saw a black person. He was a Rhodesian academic, Amis says. His father, Kinglsey, was meeting him in town, and beforehand schooled his young son on what he was about to see. “He’s going to have black skin,” he explained, and Martin replied confidently that he knew what to expect. Yet when he met the Rhodesian academic in person, he became overcome with shock, and with his finger pointed yelled, “You’ve got a black face!”
Amis seems more than a little embarrassed to admit this. He feels strongly that multiculturalism has been a good thing for England; without it the country might not have gotten over the fall of the British Empire. It helped solidify in people’s minds that imperialism was not a good thing, and it progressed the country at a much faster rate than any of its neighbours. We might have been in decline for the past 70 years, but he believes that our poetry is still the best in the world, and our sexual revolution happened long before it did elsewhere in Europe.
And then, as if to prove both these points, he quotes Larkin: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) / – Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”
But though he has seldom before spoken so positively about the place, Amis goes on to say that he isn’t entirely fond of England. He hates our bizarre tradition of football violence, and loathes of our conflicting relationship with alcohol, as footage of drunk, slack-jawed lads in V-neck tops illustrates.
Of course no doubt anybody who is at all averse to Martin Amis will wonder, well, who cares what he thinks of England anyway? And indeed this is a perfectly fair question to ask. But anybody who has ever found Amis remotely interesting, in his fiction or in his journalism, should find his thoughts here at least entertaining, even if they disagree fervently with almost everything he has to say.
Martin Amis’s England is on BBC Four on Sunday 23 March at 9.00pm
Malcolm Webster is currently serving a life sentence.
At his sentencing in 2011, Lord Bannatyne explained that his “was a murder of a wholly exceptional kind, and of a type rarely seen in these courts. This was a murder which could properly be described as cold-blooded, brutal and callous”.
This three-part ITV drama follows the true story of a dangerous psychopath; a man who murdered his first wife, attempted the murder of his second, and ensnared a subsequent fiancé. In each case, his motive was a desire to amass money.
Webster’s trail of deceit and calculation covers a wide breadth of time and space; during the thirteen years after the murder of his first wife (Claire Morris, played by Sheridan Smith) in Scotland, he made a similar attempt on a second wife’s life (Felicity Drumm, played by Kate Fleetwood) in New Zealand, and subsequently returned to Scotland where he pursued a similar scheme with Simone Banajee (played by Archie Panjabi).
The reality is a chilling tale. A man, who proves himself capable of premeditated murder, similarly proves capable of building robust and trusting relationships with successive women and their respective families, whilst maintaining respectable employment. This is where the fascination lies and where, unfortunately, ITV’s dramatization is weakest. The story as told by Jeff Pope (ITV’s award-winning factual drama screenwriter and filmmaker) begins each chapter at the weddings, thereby affording little time to the development of the relationships.
When the actual story appeared in newspapers, the ubiquitous question was: how did this man so effectively deceive three women? That question remains after watching this drama. One would assume that to fulfil his grim quests Webster must have been, by all appearances, charismatic and affable. Whilst Reece Shearsmith’s portrayal is suitably disturbing, it also presents a man who is somewhat socially-awkward, rigid, and creepy; as such, it fails to provide an insight into how three intelligent and beautiful women were taken in by him.
The drama makes for unsettling viewing, but this may be largely because the viewer knows the events to be true, rather than any particular strength of the depiction. One has to question as well the purpose of dramatizing such events. If it serves as a cautionary tale to others; to ensure that Webster’s cold-bloodedness is not granted the relief of fading in our collective memory; or to offer an insight which allows the public to better understand the perspective of his victims – that it was no failure of theirs to be deceived, then it fulfils a worthy cause. If it serves as prime-time, post-dinner television entertainment, it risks being voyeuristic.
The Widower is on ITV at 9pm on Monday 17 March
Rednecks are rarely an American stereotype associated with highly educated rocket scientists, and it’s exactly upon this crux that the new show Rocket City Rednecks draws its unique selling point. Having already completed two seasons in the states, the show has been picked up for a UK running by trusty channel Dave (and most-likely multiple multiple re-runnings).
One of the show’s first charms is Travis Taylor, a highly educated and charismatic ‘redneck’, who leads the events, clarifies the science for the audience and helps to bond his engineering friends together through banter – and the occasional beer. He’s a likeable character and as with all of his crew (either friends or family members) they’re clearly highly-educated professionals in their chosen fields of expertise. A quick glance at the screen or opening credits could see you mistaking this show for nothing more than a few Southern American simpletons playing around with machinery – but don’t let the Southern drawls fool you – there is a lot of method to the madness.
The opening episode sees the gang explore ways in which they could destroy a hypothetical comet set for a collision with earth, on a weekend away from the mass budgets and space age technology their NASA jobs may offer. They instead solve this problem with a simple trebuchet, a crate of watermelons and in-true-redneck-style a truck load of guns. Again this could be perceived as rednecks shooting watermelons in their back garden, which it ultimately is, but behind each model, construction or method there is a meticulous scientific grounding. This simple approach to science is exactly where Rocket City Rednecks draws its charm. Everything feels simple, down to earth and understandable yet at the same time the models that are created provide cheap and effective solutions to complex scientific problems.
This juxtaposition of Southern stereotyping and effective research method makes the science digestible and the overall show extremely fun and entertaining. It does feel like the Southern-ness is at times overplayed, with the opening credits springing to mind, but overall it provides an enjoyable framing device for a science show that enjoyably pokes holes in Southern stereotypes. At times the show falls into semi-reality TV territory with awkward editing and over-constructed delivery of lines, although these are sparse enough as to not take away from the overall experience. The 30 minute format keeps the pace exciting whilst still being easily consumed, and thankfully steers the programme away from the ‘45 minutes of build up for one final large experiment’ format of some other science magazine shows.
Rocket City Rednecks is a blend between serious science and Southern caricaturing that somehow works, not to mention fits perfectly into the Dave’s archive of shows. The reality TV elements are stomach-able but feel tacked on for the social media generation and although the redneck focus can be overplayed it ultimately provides comical relief and that time old treasure – Southern hospitality. Somehow this programme feels larger than life while also being rooted in reality, the constructions are modest and not built to hog the limelight, but the Southern accents, solutions and lifestyle give a surrealist tinge to the overall production.
It’s a simple but effective recipe, like deep fried chicken and potatoes: take one part Scrapheap Challenge and knead in a healthy scoop of Mythbusters, before seasoning with chunks of Duck Dynasty, fry for 30 minutes and you’ve got something close to Rocket City Rednecks.
Rocket City Rednecks will be broadcast at 7pm, on Monday 17th of March on Dave.
Like David Attenborough, Carl Sagan’s success as a presenter came from a sincere and unrivalled passion for his subject. As he proved with his BBC lectures in the 1970s, he didn’t need props or special effects to be interesting; he spoke as well interacting with a group of school children as he did strolling along a beach, or standing next to a cardboard cut-out of what was supposed to be a spaceship.
Yet even when these devices were employed, such as in his landmark series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the project upon which Sagan’s legacy still rests, he himself always remained effortlessly fascinating.
When he died of pneumonia in 1996, it seemed extremely unlikely that there would ever be a follow-up to the series, or whether a worthy successor to carry on in Sagan’s place would ever be found. But now, thirty-four years after the original aired, it returns, this time hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, presenter of PBS’s Nova ScienceNow and one of Sagan’s close friends during his lifetime.
Gone this time around are the cardboard cut-outs and what Tyson calls “mutton chops” — i.e. scenes in which historical events are acted out by actors in tights and wigs; in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey such stories are told through graphic novel-style animation and narrated by Tyson, who sits aboard an expensive-looking CGI spaceship, his face illuminated by flickering buttons and the kindly light of distant galaxies.
In episode one Tyson describes just how incomprehensibly old our universe is. He explains that if all time were to be represented as a calendar of the month, our history—that is, every war and battle there has ever been, every king and every queen, every person from Pytheas to Eric Pickles — would appear as a single tiny dot in the very corner of the 31st day.
He then takes us back into what is comparatively the very near past to tell the story of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher who correctly proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space and not the centre of our universe. Bruno’s epiphany, Tyson says, was not accepted in his time, and as he had no way of proving his theory, he was shunned and later burnt at the stake for blasphemy and heresy.
Some viewers — particularly those who know Tyson as one of the unofficially elected faces of internet atheism — may believe that this sad and gruesome story is Tyson’s way of suggesting that religion is detrimental to furthering our understanding of the universe. But in fact Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is by no means explicitly anti-religious. The series instead encourages viewers to be sceptical of all that is unproved and seeks to open minds to what is unarguably a vast and wonderful universe.
More accurately, if it is against anything at all, it is against ignorance. Both Tyson and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and one of the creators of the original Cosmos, have expressed their disappointment at a supposed trend towards anti-intellectualism, which they say is prevalent throughout the United States. A Spacetime Odyssey is thus their attempt to change all this by inspiring a generation of young people the same way Sagan and the original Cosmos did over three decades ago.
Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen. Yet judging from this first episode, full of dozens of humbling facts about the world in which we live and the stars and planets that surround us, it doesn’t seem improbable to hope that hundreds of astrophysicists will be created because of it.
That’s not to say that it’s entirely beyond reproach. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said of the new series, which is more a matter of preference than an overt criticism, is that it looks a little too slick. Robert Hughes proved with The New Shock of the New that a follow-up to a classic documentary series doesn’t need glossy production values; and though the Cosmos has much more need for elaborate visual aids, it does tend to overuse CGI to the point at which it becomes a distraction rather than a useful tool.
Nevertheless it is hard to be especially critical given that the original series, too, had its fair share of cheesy special effects—most of which were created using string and cardboard. Even for its time these effects were not great, though ultimately it didn’t matter: viewers tuned in for Carl Sagan, for his charisma and his ability of explaining the seemingly unexplainable.
With A Spacetime Odyssey, the same seems true of Tyson. Very few people could have convincingly stepped into this role, but he manages to pull it off by showcasing his own disparate talent as a presenter, as well as the boundless charisma he possesses. Though it contains far more distractions than its predecessor — particularly those of the CGI variety — Tyson ensures that A Spacetime Odyssey is as equally thrilling and concerned with celebrating the natural beauty of the universe as the original series was.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey starts on Sunday 16 March at 7PM on National Geographic