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Apocalypse not now

08 March 2013

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WE HAVE missed the end of the world (again). This is how some of the people of Chelyabinsk interpreted the arrival last month of a huge meteorite - the largest such impact for more than a century. The apocalyptic overtones led not one, but two, channels to choose the Lord's Day to broadcast documentaries on the subject.

Meteor Strike: Fireball from space (Channel 4) was the more sensational of the two, relying on local testimony to back up the wealth of video evidence of the phenomenon. The Truth About Meteors: A Horizon special (BBC2) was more measured and magisterial, and provided a longer view and a deeper context.

The extensive damage to Chelyabinsk was caused not by the meteorite's hitting the ground (a meteor, or shooting star, burns up as it enters the earth's atmosphere: if any of it hits the surface, it is reclassified as a meteorite), but by its breaking up in the air.

We saw how millions of these objects, survivors from the creation of the solar system, circle harmlessly in the asteroid belt: but, if some force alters their trajectory, then they may well stray into the earth's path. There are, each year, vast numbers of such arrivals on our soil from deep space, but mostly in the form of imperceptible dust.

The potential for damage was illustrated by Mexico's 177km- wide Chicxulub crater, caused 65 million years ago by a 15km-wide meteorite, widely accepted as wiping out most life on earth, including the dinosaurs. There is great scientific interest in such phenomena, and estimates are made of the likelihood of future such visitations, and whether we could deflect them.

Every asteroid that is more than a kilometre wide is now monitored - it is a relief to know that none of them is forecast to hit the earth for at least 100 years. Once again, TV science gave rise to speculation about the mysterious ways of God, and spiritual examination about how prepared we are for our own extinction.

No apocalyptic visitation of divine wrath is expected as a result of the subject of The Mormons Are Here! A Culture Show Special (BBC2, Wednesday of last week). Alan Yentob's documentary started out by promising an exploration of the significance of the iconoclastic work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who are about to hit the West End with their musical about the Mormon faith.

Parker and Stone's work has always contained a large element of religious material, mercilessly satirising Christianity (both Roman Catholic and Evangelical), Judaism, and Islam. It is particularly enjoyable to English viewers be- cause of the delight we derive from feeling superior to Americans and seeing them made fun of. There is a serious exploration to be made of the positive value of causing offence, but this soft-edged programme did not make it.

Richard III: The unseen story (More4, Wednesday of last week) gave more details of the recent identification of the late monarch's remains. It all remains hardly believable: the first grave in the first trench was proved to be that of the King himself. Was this a case of Providence at work?

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