TV programs worth watching
Sun March 30 — Sat April 5
When I was a boy, human evolution was reasonably straight forward: humans evolved from apes (or "monkeys") into homo sapiens and set out to occupy the world. There were the awkward pre-human fossils to explain away, such as Pekin Man and Java Man, but it seemed to make sense. There was even a "missing link" between apes and humans, Piltdown Man. Or there was until Piltdown Man was shown to be a deliberate hoax. Today, thanks to the extraordinary amount of work done in the Rift Valley of Kenya and in China, we know that the ancestors of human beings not only began to walk upright about three million years ago, but that they also began their expansion out of Africa before the appearance of homo sapiens. In fact, as the three-part documentary series The Human Odyssey (SBS 7.30pm Sunday) shows, "mankind did not develop along a single, linear route; often different species lived alongside one another". Episode one, It Began in Africa, deals with the origins of mankind as a species in the African Savannah. Episode two, next week, looks at Pekin Man, an early hominid, an ancestor of homo sapiens' predecessor homo erectus, who left Africa about two million years ago and headed for China. This week's episode of Mark Twain (ABC 9.30 pm Sundays), Ken Burns' four-part tribute to the great American author, humorist and social satirist, takes up the story of Samuel Clemens at age 32. Clemens, having worked as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, prospector, lecturer and newspaper reporter was just starting to make a name for himself as Mark Twain. When he returned from a trip to Europe in 1867 he had two new ambitions: he wanted to publish his first book, and he hoped to finally find someone to marry. These he achieved when he married the beautiful Olivia Langdon and had The Innocents Abroad published. His 1873 novel The Gilded Age was a biting satire on the greed and get- rich-quick fever of the era, and yet in many ways Clemens own life personified it: He loved money and the comfort and luxury it could buy. Next he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a celebration of boyhood in a small Southern town in the time of slavery, superstition, riverboats and dreams of adventure. Then followed Life on the Mississippi, A Tramp Abroad, The Prince and the Pauper and in 1883 his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn. Cultural genocide has always been understood by imperialism as a particularly potent weapon. The English Kings in their conquest of the rest of the British Isles certainly appreciated it. As a result of their efforts to stamp out the culture of the various conquered parts of Britain and Ireland, languages like Manx and Cornish have already died and Gaelic has shrunk back into its island heartland. The ten-part documentary series The Sea Kingdoms (SBS 7.30pm Tuesdays) explores how the connecting sea has helped shape the distinctive character of the inhabitants around the western coast of the British Isles from Stornoway in the Hebrides to the west of Wales, Ireland and Cornwall. Two-thousand years ago the farms, fortresses and harbours of these islands echoed to the speech of the Celts and it is this rich culture and history which forms the focus of this series narrated by writer Alistair Moffat. I still find the new series of The Office (ABC 10:00pm Tuesdays) more unpleasant than funny (its depiction of a thoroughly obnoxious office manager is too true to be amusing — he makes you wince or cringe rather than laugh). I realise, however, that this may be a generational thing: my eldest son (aged 33, "into" film and media, no mean slouch himself as a film critic) tells me that "The Office is the best thing on TV". So you had better watch it for yourselves. Continuing this week's evolutionary bent, Insect Hunters, the second episode of David Attenborough's The Life Of Mammals (ABC 8:30pm Wednesdays), deals with the way the first placental mammals evolved, as shrew-like insect eaters. About 50 million years ago some mammals broadened their diet like today's hedgehogs and armadillos that mix their insects with fruit and birds' eggs. This program also looks at how one mammal — probably when the dinosaurs still roamed — took to the air. Today, the earth holds a bewildering array of insect eating bats including one, in New Zealand, that has retraced its origins and returned to the ground to forage like a shrew. The nuclear danger of the 1950s produced an intriguing array of films from Hollywood: there were right-wing paranoid fantasies like It Conquered The World (if I remember correctly that's the one where the military officer who has been "taken over" by the alien gets past the armed soldier on the gate of an army base in the desert by simply announcing "There's been an uprising of Communists in this area. Don't let anyone in!"). There were bizarre warnings against the dangers of nuclear testing such as Them! and The Incredible Shrinking Man, and there were even pleas for tolerance, understanding and peace (backed up by threats of our total destruction if we did not comply) such as The Day The Earth Stood Still. And there were films that simply fed on the prevailing paranoia, films like Howard Hawks' brilliant 1951 production, The Thing From Another World (ABC 10.30pm Saturday). The film is based very loosely on John W Campbell Jr's prize-winning short story Who Goes There? In the original the alien is able to change shape at will and mimic perfectly the various members of the crew it has killed, so that the survivors do not know who is friend and who is murderous alien. In the film, still set on an isolated Arctic research station peopled by scientists and military personnel, the alien is a seven foot tall humanoid, a blood-drinking member of the carrot family no less, played by James Arness. Former Editor Christian Nyby is credited as director, but the film abounds in touches characteristic of the directing style of producer Hawks: "rapid- fire overlapping dialogue; humour in the midst of turmoil; a male universe where men respect each other's talents and rank". There's a typically Hawksian heroine, "an intelligent, strong, funny woman (Margaret Sheridan) who's passed the test and is allowed to pal around with the boys"; and a typically Hawksian setting, "men working together under pressure, with each (professionals all) contributing his singular skills to get the difficult task done" (Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic). Most Hawks films are well worth watching. This is one of them.