Today’s subject is Prof. Brian Cox and his Wonders of the Universe program.
In an unusual turn of events I’ll get straight to the point. If you don’t think that Prof. Brian Cox (PBC) should be on telly you are probably labouring under the misapprehension that Wonders is a science program. Not so.
I sat down to watch an episode of Wonders (“Stardust”) with the sole intention of writing down all the new learnings this afforded. My hypothesis was that this would be very low indeed (note the scientific method…). And I’m not a particularly educated man, so the bar was set pretty low to begin with. After a full hour of viewing, this was what adorned my pad (apart from an artful depiction of a cat):
Beatleguese (?) is about to explode.
That was it. A quite interesting fact. One of the more interesting aspects of the fact is that it sits in solitude on the page. The sum total of learning was one fact that a reasonably accomplished orator could convey in about three and a half seconds. Startling.
Normally this would not be an issue, except for this is pitched as a science program. Of all the things that it is, it is not a science program. The clue is in the title. It is a program designed to spark interest and amazement (not a bad thing). The bit at the start outside the Hindu temple and reincarnation: zero science. The bits where PBC stares (in manly profile silhouette) up at the sparkly night sky: zero science. The bit where he actually gets to the point and tells us that the stuff around us came from somewhere else: pretty much zero science. Conclusion: this is not a science program. It is barely a program ABOUT science.
I’m not saying it isn’t watchable, because it is. I’m not saying PBC isn’t a great charismatic presenter (and by God we need some of those, eh Heston?), because he is. I’m saying it’s all style and no substance. So, this is not to say the program is without merit, just to point out that for PBC to take the moral high ground is a little bit rich. It is not getting people into science, it is getting people into cultish vagueness, artful camerawork and funky backbeat accompanyments. A pop video with constellations. Dumbing-down in a smart suit.
If he is drawing more young people (particularly women) to look at science as an interesting subject worthy of further study you could easily argue that this a good thing and the ends justify the means. But who will it attract? Whether they are attracted by his chiselled good looks, or obvious passion for…something, or his presenting skills is almost (but not quite) irrelevant. The problem? Sex will sell anything. Make something sexy and it will sell. Period. Shoot some moody shots of sunsets, with PBC peering out to the horizon, and people will watch. And applaud the sterling effort. But are we not selling a lie? Will the target audience not be disappointed as soon as they, say, get to university (running up massive debts in the process) only to find the lessons drier than a sarcastic description of the Sahara, and with limited relevant career options afterwards? A friend of mine has a degree in astrophysics. The only thing this qualified him for was to teach astrophysics – he’s now a computer programmer. Another friend has a first class chemistry degree. She was last seen trying to devise better ways of making cream squirt from a can for the food industry. Make an impassioned documentary about that, you moodily-lit bugger. We may indeed all be Forged in the Furnaces of Distant Galaxies, but these can-nozzles aren’t going to wash themselves…
It all feels a bit Emporers New Clothes (that would make me a young boy, pointing and shouting), I wouldn’t mind if it didn’t take itself so seriously. It’s so begging for a parody the thing practically writes itself. Over to you, John Culshaw. No doubt Wonders will win awards though.
The BBC got it pretty much right when they made Horizon: recent developments in science, simply explained, gone in to in a little bit of depth. The trouble is, only the geeks watched it. The problem? – no sex. How do we attract the cool kids in to science? With a semi rocknroll posterboy fronting a well shot but ultimately vacuous travel show spouting vague generalisations about how great OUR universe is while staring at the moon. How do we keep them interested in science? Er, you probably can’t. Best leave it to the geeks then.
But just on the offchance, get PBC to present Horizon and leave the picturesque globe trotting to Judith Chalmers.
Just a thought.
Also made me smile: