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TV review: MissionsBig Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art: Made in the USA, and A Very English Scandal

01 June 2018

BBC/Empreinte Digitale

A still from the BBC sci-fi drama Missions

A still from the BBC sci-fi drama Missions

HOW our bishops must have rejoiced when they heard of a new TV series devoted to precisely the activity that they consider would lead the Church of England into the sunlit uplands! Alas, I cannot see that anyone, despite its name, would think it possible to claim, as a fresh expression of Church, the subject-matter of Missions (BBC4, Thursdays). It is, instead, a sci-fi drama, imagining the first manned space expeditions to Mars.

I say expeditions, because there are two: one American, and one French. It is very much a French production, with all the sophistication that that implies. It is also hard-boiled about those central issues, sex and death: the psychiatrist heroine whiling away the long months with energetic coupling with the captain, while the captain is lost in an early accident, floating away into deep space to die alone.

But we may not have seen the last of him: on Mars, they discover an astronaut who appears to be a Russian who died in a space accident 40 years ago. But is he a resurrected human, or a humanoid product of AI?

There are theological resonances: they have just discovered a structure on Mars that can only be described as an altar.

It is an enjoyable mix of hokum and a few serious points. Space is probably going to be developed according to an entrepreneurial model of, say, the East India Company. The US team think that the best way to conduct an encounter with the French équipe is at the barrel of sub-machine guns. Watch out for sparks.

Earthbound religious references abound in Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art: Made in the USA, BBC4’s new series about American art (Wednesdays), delivered by Waldemar Januszczak. Scale, he tells us, is central to the genre: the huge spaces of the Wild West, its canyons and mountains provide apocalyptic landscapes with immediate scriptural reference.

Thomas Moran’s huge canvases set the pitch: from then on, the United States produced monumental art whether figurative, abstract, or expressionist. Januszczak was particularly illuminating about the mys­terious and haunting rock art of Native Americans, utterly expressive, if unreadable to us.

A Very English Scandal (BBC1, Sunday evenings) raises moral questions. Billed as a “fact-based drama” telling the story of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, is it entertainment, or trial by television — except that, from the start, its verdict is clearly “guilty”? But, if we are watching an MP’s abuse of power and prestige, victimising a vulnerable young man, why does the overall tone teeter on the edge of that English obsession, the saucy romp?

The most moving section so far is the Earl of Arran’s plea for the legalisation of consenting homosexual relationships, removing the canker that blighted and destroyed so many lives. Let us hope that, as it develops, this becomes the predominant element.

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