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TV review: Devs and Rebuilding Notre-Dame

24 April 2020

BBC/FX Networks

Forest (Nick Offerman), who has constructed a machine that can replicate the past and the future, in the drama Devs (BBC2, Easter Wednesday and Thursday)

Forest (Nick Offerman), who has constructed a machine that can replicate the past and the future, in the drama Devs (BBC2, Easter Wednesday and Thursd...

I WOULD have chosen the resur­rection, myself. Devs (BBC2, Easter Wednesday and Thursday: six more in iPlayer) is a glossy thriller ex­­ploring the boundaries of today’s IT. The staff of the hyper-successful company Amaya are all brilliant, odd, and mostly young. The best are sent to work in its ultra-secretive Devs department. The founder of Amaya, Forest, has constructed a machine so sophisticated that it can replicate the past and the future.

Central to this scenario is his conviction that free will is a fond illusion: if you could only finesse the algorithm accurately enough, and had computing power humongous enough to crunch the numbers, everything that had ever happened, or ever would happen, would be open to you, because the universe is absolutely deterministic. Every action and thought is already set and is no more than the inexorable working out of infinitely complex interlocking causations.

This ice-cold ambition, a ruthless excising of human emotion, is fatally undermined by Forest’s ruling pas­sion: he longs to bring back to life his beloved little daughter, whose lifelike 100-foot-high statue looms spookily over the complex.

The religious connotations of all this are explicit: predestination versus free will are once more slugging it out, this time in Silicon Valley, and the test that they have chosen for the machine, which is, of course, God (kind of), is to show them Jesus’s crucifixion on its giant screen. As I said, the resurrection would be far more interesting. We know what crucifixions look like, but Easter morning in the garden — that would be a revelation.

It is bunkum, but highly sophis­t­icated, brilliantly performed, aston­ishingly designed and realised, and convincing.

Rebuilding Notre-Dame: Inside the great cathedral rescue (BBC4, Easter Wednesday), marking the anniversary of the catastrophic fire (News, 18 April 2019), was curiously disappointing. It threw away the most amazing fact: the world’s aston­ishment, as the smoke cleared, that almost all the stone vault and stained glass had survived the inferno.

Like last year’s news bulletins, it ignored our long experience of fire damage to medieval structures (for example, York Minster’s three fires of 1829, 1840, and 1984) and our real­isation of their extraordinary dynamic resilience — how a cool updraught often protects stained glass.

The narration was confused. Im­­plying that stone vaults were de­­veloped to counteract the side­ways thrust of flying buttresses utterly confuses cause and effect: fly­ing but­tresses were invented to support the vaults. Worst of all, only at the end did it mention the fascinating con­ceptual debate: should the cathedral be restored to its pre-fire state, or should a contemporary roof and flèche (not a spire) float over Paris?

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