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Philosophy on ice

22 February 2013


BBC4 prepared us for our Lenten journey into the wilderness (I could find no acknowledgement of Ash Wednesday in the schedules) with the extraordinary Storyville: Expedition to the end of the world (BBC4, Monday of last week). Global warming has caused the ice in Greenland to retreat so far that some fjords are now accessible that humans have never seen.

This poetic film recorded an expedition undertaken by a team of Norwegian scientists and artists in a sailing ship. The scientists, when not examining geological evidence, spent their time in lofty philosophical speculation about life, confronting the issues of time and decay, and the likely extinction of the human species.

The artists sketched against a background of heavy-metal music, or were encouraging the foolhardy pursuit of a polar bear. The soundtrack was one of the many treats: shattering pop, Mozart's Requiem, or else silence, as the ship felt its way between the ice floes.

It ended enigmatically, hinting that perhaps the ice had eventually encompassed the ship, that they had ventured too far to return, that they had merged into the enveloping silence.

Refusal to accept extinction was the theme of another programme. Black Mirror (Channel 4, Mondays) showed us how Martha succumbed to the temptation to bring Ash, her beloved partner, back from the dead. It envisaged a cyber programme that, by mashing together all a deceased person's emails, tweets, and phone calls, can create a replica of them, capable of carrying on phone conversations using their distinctive phrases and thought patterns. Martha was besotted by this convincing simulacrum, spending every hour on the phone. Eventually, he offered her another, advanced level, to which she signed up. A massive package duly arrived, containing a life-sized replica of Ash, complete in every detail.

Left in the bath overnight with a sachet of enzymes, it came to life, its programme reproducing every quirk and characteristic recorded by Ash in his lifetime. But the initial bliss soon wore off. This replica, she realised, was not really alive: it would never develop as a living being. Would she destroy it? Alas, that would be too much: instead, she kept it in the attic for high days and holidays.

This was stylish and watchable, but, in the end, the drama did not match up to its grand moral themes - a Frankenstein myth for our technological days.

The Sound and the Fury: A century of music (BBC4, Tuesdays) offers a fascinating contrast with Howard Goodall's continuing history of the art. Unlike his criticism of the direction that music took in the 20th century, in his view alienating audiences and unhealthily splitting serious from popular music, this celebrates and seeks to demystify the innovations of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

I must declare an interest: my wife is a renowned interpreter of the wildest excesses of contemporary art music, and I am convinced that it represents a wholly creative engagement with our world in its revolution, violence, and alienation. This is valuable and illuminating TV. What a shame that it will not be covering anything in the C of E church repertoire.

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