Daytime TV: All too human

Gary Day finds nature thrilling but is filled with gloom by our perpetual desire to reinvent ourselves

October 22, 2009

Question: Why are we fascinated by the natural world? Answer: David Attenborough. His sheer sense of wonder at nature's ordinary - a flower opening under the sun, a bumblebee taking flight or a bird building its nest - makes us gasp in astonishment. Without David we may never have known that grebes walk on water, or that the chinkara, a desert-dwelling gazelle, can go without drinking completely: it gets all the moisture it needs from the morning dew.

His new series Life (BBC One, Sunday 12 October, 9pm) shows that nature still has the power to make our eyes widen, like those of the stalk-eyed fly, at her marvels. A frog the size of a fingernail carries each of her tadpoles up a tall tree and deposits them in a tiny pool of water at the centre of a bromeliad plant. David, who we hear but don't see these days, likened the journey to a mother climbing up the Empire State Building with a baby on her back. And the name of this creature? The strawberry poison arrow frog. Doesn't quite do it justice, does it?

But we aren't drawn to nature programmes just because of the stunning photography or because we want to know more about the phenomenon named Attenborough. No, we switch on because we are no longer sure what separates us from the animal kingdom. It's not our use of tools, it's not our ability to communicate and it's not even our sense of humour. Recent research suggests that gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees laugh if you tickle their palms, but not if Bruce Forsyth tells them a joke. Well, they are not as highly developed as we are. You won't catch them watching programmes that, for all their stunning photography, seem mostly to focus on how one thing kills another.

Soon we will be able to drink and drive. Physicist Michio Kaku was filmed sitting in a car that drove itself. An invention that would come in handy after all that champagne at the Times Higher Education Awards ceremony. Last week, Visions of the Future (BBC Four, Wednesday 14 October, 9pm) looked at the intelligence revolution. In the 1960s the world's fastest computer was the IBM 1401. It filled a room and weighed 4 tons. It cost about a million pounds and did 34,000 calculations per second. A mobile phone fits into your pocket and costs about £50. It can do - and I am still wondering if I heard this correctly - 1 billion calculations per second. Like nature, technology can sometimes take your breath away.

We live in an age of "ubiquitous computing". Microchips fly our planes and wash our dishes. They are also becoming indispensable in medicine. A woman called Diane had suffered from depression for years. She tried everything, including listening to Bruce Forsyth's jokes, but she didn't get any better. It was only when electrodes were planted deep in her brain that she could smile. They had to be tuned in like a radio. Turn the dial a little too much one way and she was suicidal; turn it too much the other way and she thought Bruce Forsyth was hilarious. Soon, no one will be unhappy any more.

Of course, that will mean that we have to rethink what it means to be human. It won't be long before body parts will be replaced by machines, and we will soon be spending more and more time in the virtual world where we can reinvent ourselves endlessly. Michio's excitement at the prospect of a society where your underpants can call for an ambulance if you have a heart attack blinded him to some rather obvious questions. Who was going to have access to this technology? Doesn't it reinforce the existing tendency of capitalism to treat others as a means to an end? One talking head told us that robots will be our best friends because they will be programmed to listen better than any human. He thought this was OK. But it's not. It's narcissism.

David Pirie's Murderland (ITV, Tuesday 20 October, 9pm) tells the story of a slaying from three different points of view. The first is that of the daughter whose mother is the victim. The opening scenes were like those of a modernist poem. A sequence of apparently unrelated images. One of which was a detective burying a lead. Witty or what?

Robbie Coltrane as Inspector Hain was crumpled, whisky soaked and world weary. Give him an Emmy, now. Bel Powley as the daughter looked uncannily like Linda Blair in The Exorcist before the Devil decided to take up residence in her. Not Bel's fault, but it made me alarmed every time she came downstairs, which was a lot. Was this a symbol? Perhaps. Now we see through a glass darkly, but it should all be clear by episode three.

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