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Some serious sci-fi

12 December 2014

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HOW good to have a serious TV documentary that considered basic theological questions: what constitutes humanity, the nature of life itself, the responsibility of the Creator to his creation. And what a pregnant commentary on our world that such questions should be raised in a programme about popular fantasy films: Tomorrow's Worlds: The unearthly history of science fiction  (BBC2, Saturday).

It is a series presented by Dominic Sandbrook, and helpfully nailed the idea that the high-falutin' theorising about the deeper meaning of science-fiction films is not just the construct of the Senior Common Room seeking respectable justification for its favourite form of relaxation. The directors, writer, and actors all insisted that such basic issues were at the forefront of their minds.

It started and ended with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the crucial text in the exploration of what it might mean for mankind to play God and create a living being. What Sandbrook well emphasised was the extent to which this was a serious moral work. The tour took in Boris Karloff, Asimov, Star Wars, The Terminator, Blade Runner, Battleship Galactica, Doctor Who, RoboCop, and The Matrix.

It charted our confused attitute to technology and robotics: what happens if technology is not just stronger than we are, but smarter? To what extent are we cleverly programmed machines? What it failed to address was the basic philosophical question whether it is possible to create a machine that is genuinely intelligent rather than just an immensely sophisticated tool. I understand that, for a range of vital formal reasons, it is not. Not yet.

Flesh genuinely did creep in BBC1's ghost story Remember Me, whose concluding episode was screened on Sunday. This is as good an example of the genre as I can remember, weaving realistic drama with supernatural goings-on, employing ordinary phenomena - a dripping tap, a child's swing - in just enough the wrong time and place to be seriously scary.

It benefited from actors such as Michael Palin and Sheila Hancock, who for once had a decent script and scenario to work on. Brilliant photography revealed the brooding menace inherent in the Yorkshire Moors and Scarborough; and it was good to have as heroine a young care assistant rather than the more glamorous professions usually portrayed.

The denouement was, as is customary, less satisfactory than the build-up. A tricky change of gear is required to wrap everything up so that both dramatic and supernatural strands are honoured, and this did not quite hit the nail.

There were acts of God aplenty in Thursday of last week's The Railway: First Great Western  (Channel 4). Last winter's storms were not just bad, they were the worst in the history of the railway. Their forecasting system displayed a black warning, which they had never seen before. What it meant was that Cornwall was cut off, and only 20 per cent of trains were running.

Some passengers thought the disruption inexcusable; the film encouraged wholehearted sympathy for the heroic railway staff.

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