Tune in, switch off - On another planet

6th November 2009 at 00:00

Fasten your seatbelts and hold on tight. For we are embarking on a six-year exploration of the solar system with a group of moonwalkers. They may not rock like Michael Jackson, but they do rocket into space pretty fast.

Our astronauts in the new sci-fi series, Defying Gravity (BBC Two), have names like Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston, pictured) and Zahf Paroo. Actually, I lied: Paroo is a real actor who plays Ajay Sharma. It is supposed to be 2052 but it feels like 2009 with gismos. Sex and snogging take precedence over science. They may be in space but they seem spaced out.

The astronauts are on a quest to fulfil their "dreams, desires and illusions". I remember at university our nickname for Newcastle Brown was "journey into outer space". It was pretty good for desires and illusions, too.

The plot resembles one of Baldrick's cunning plans and the dialogue is so dismal you feel it has been vacuum-packed in a spacesuit. Actually, it might have been better left in orbit.

Our first "Houston, we have a problem" moment comes when Zoe is blown out of the spacecraft. Her rescue depends on the force of her spit. There is a scientific explanation for her need to expel mucus, but do not ask me to explain it. The crew applauds and blesses the President as Zoe is reeled in like a beached whale. Clearly, we need to teach whales to spit.

Dr Who was never like this. Last week in assembly, I interviewed Amy, a drama trainee, about her last job as casting director on that programme. She amazed the school with tales of Kylie and David Tennant. So why did she leave? She was inspired by teaching and young people. She gave up the glamour to be with them.

As Donner looks at the earth from space, he too seeks inspiration: "There's an ache for the mountains and the sweet smell of fresh air. How the hell did I get here? Was it the hand of God?"

The dialogue is about as realistic as a Dalek taking the stairs rather than the lift. I predict a rocket-speed return to our planet for a programme that does not defy gravity.

In Horizon (BBC Two), mathematician Marcus du Sautoy was also soul searching while on a scientific mission to find out who he was. Purple-gloved, he tentatively sliced a human brain but could not find a soul inside, though it did contain a banker's bonus of neurons - a hundred million or so.

Brain scans predicted his responses six seconds before he made them. We are an elite group of self-conscious animals, he decided. At a memorial statue to Descartes, he pondered the relationship between body and soul. I remember grappling with Descartes' theories at university, especially when a worried friend asked our professor about human consciousness. "Do I exist?" The wily academic pondered for several minutes before replying: "Who wants to know?"

No wonder we drank so much Newcastle Brown.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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