Sunday, July 22, 2001 by

With a boom of celestial proportions, the much-vaunted Space, fronted by the redoubtable Sam Neill, began on Sunday evening. Trailed relentlessly by the BBC over the last few weeks and subject to the now normal levels of pre-publicity saturation in the media, the first installment of this family friendly visual spectacular proved to be a remarkable victory for style over substance. However, that is not to take anything away from the makers. Ultimately, this was an enjoyable (though never engrossing) half hour of dazzling computer generated images, interesting hypothesis and well presented facts. Potentially, the BBC has another impressive winner on its hands.

Recent years have proven to be a wonderful time for science. Novels such as Longitude, Unweaving the Rainbow and Fermat’s Last Theorem have taken up the baton from those such as Hawking, and the current slew of science related books, novels, screenplays etc. is proof that, in the words of the Berlin Blondes, science is for me and science is for you. However, the fundamental problem of tackling cosmology is how to render the vastness of space to the viewer whilst at the same time underlining the essential insignificance of mankind. No small task but, thankfully, one that Space managed successfully in its’ opening episode.

As a parent, I’ve come to view and appreciate this strand of programming with ever-increasing gratitude and also with a keener, more critical eye. I’m sure that the physicists and cosmologists out there found a bone (or two) of contention to chew over, but to the average layman like myself the content was never overwhelming, always on the starboard side of understandable. Initially I must confess to being a little sceptical as to having such an all-encompassing show on a Sunday evening but it sits perfectly well on the schedule and, for me, adds to the texture of Sunday night viewing.

For the amateur and professional scientists amidst the viewing community there will be, I’m sure, nothing new in Space for them to swoon over. On the other hand, the raison d’être of the programme is to get people interested who otherwise wouldn’t be and, thanks in no small part to the aforementioned computer generated images, plenty of people will have much to muse and wonder over. Therefore, in this context, lack of depth is a good thing – the manner in which the Big Bang was handled being a perfect case in point. To go into any greater depth on this particular subject would require considerable knowledge, perhaps even a half-our show in itself. However, the casual, laconic but always interested presentation style of O’Neill in relating the Big Bang to the viewer was beautifully judged and worked extremely well visually. The pre Big Bang hypothesis was treated with, not so much a rigid, almost Lutheran logical methodology, but more of a post Godwanaland hippyesque sentiment. In truth, science may have reconstructed the events of the Big Bang back to a trillionth of a second after it happened but what happened prior to that moment remains a mystery. But hey, when you’ve got state of the art computers and software to play about with, what harm in an educated guess and an awesomely spectacular recreation of said guess?

Four full-time 3-D artists spent some 500 hours to create the “Virtual Space Zone” sequences used in the programme. Whilst I always sit back in slack jawed amazement at cutting edge CGI’s, I continuously wonder at how long it will take before we look upon these images as being obsolete (in terms of look and complexity). One need only watch Jurassic Park or Titanic again to be reminded how swiftly this field develops. Nonetheless, the four artists involved have created something special. My daughter, a keen junior astronomer, was enthralled by the effects but only occasionally did they obscure the content, and she was able to keep pace relatively easy with the subject matter (as was I!)

Still, the fundamental flaw in this show is its star – the graphics. As I said, in broad terms, the opening episode could be construed as a victory of style over substance due to the almost (at times) constant bombardment of the viewer with dramatic images. In retrospect though, if you’re trying to hook a large number of viewers, then what better way than by using the considerable armory of tools at your disposal? So perhaps I am being unduly harsh on the editorial team. Either way, to continue in this vein would be cloying to say the least, but I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised to see a reduction in the number of visuals used. Or, more likely, we’ll see the visuals being introduced more “softly” as on the odd occasion they were rather brusquely thrust upon us.

Still, extra credit is due to Sam Neill. His performance is measured and he proves himself to be ideal in this narrator/presenter role. He has a natural, lilting accent that seems to effortlessly translate the myriad facts, figures and nuggets of information without hesitation or inarticulacy. He is clear, concise and conveys the wonders of the firmament with considerable ease and charm. Given that Sam’s Hollywood stock is on the ascendancy, clearly Space has potential for not only being a ratings winner but also a money-spinner too. But that would be rather fussy of me to accuse the makers of deliberately plumping for Sam on the basis of his superstar value. His performance vindicates his choice and the makers are to be thus congratulated.

Overall, I must confess to looking forward to the next installment of this programme, despite my initial reservations. Perhaps I’ve allowed myself to become too excited by the avalanche of pre-show publicity but I am willing this to improve as it has an excellent foundation to build upon. The essential components are there – excellent presenter, tight direction, beautiful scenery, eccentric scientist or two, superb computer images and the depth of knowledge has been sagaciously judged. A little tinkering to the formula is all that is required, and, with a little luck, a 30-minute slice of educational and entertaining perfection will fill our Sunday evening screens. As Sam intoned in the opening scene, “We’re going to take you on an incredible journey.” Indeed.


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