The Science Channel debuted a new show last night, Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, with the premier apparently designed by committee to piss off as many Internet types as possible. The overall theme was “Is there a creator?” and it featured physicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne talking about fine-tuning but no atheist rebuttal. It spent a good ten minutes on Garrett Lisi and his E8 theory, making it sound a whole lot more complete than it is. And it got this aggressively stupid review in the Times:
Oh, let’s face it: it was hard to concentrate on the first half of the first episode of “Through the Wormhole With Morgan Freeman,” the latest series exploring scientific mysteries in a no-doctorate-required way, which has its debut on Wednesday night on the Science Channel.
It’s not that the Oscar-winning Mr. Freeman is particularly worse than F. Murray Abraham, James Earl Jones and all those other actors who have lent their formidable voices to the cause of trying to make science programming compelling. It’s that this opening installment, which is supposed to be about whether there’s a Creator, almost immediately degenerates into theoretical yakking by scientists about unified theories of this and missing particles of that.
Especially with recent news coverage of that particle accelerator near Geneva, it seems as if we’d been hearing about this type of physics for a long time, and the discussion never does go anywhere or have much practical relevance. Anybody got a particle big enough to plug that busted oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico?
(OK, that last paragraph is actually pretty accurate…)
The “Oooh, nasty physics hurts our brains, precious” slant of the review is the sort of thing that always pisses me off. Of course, it worked to the show’s advantage, because it was that review that brought the show to my attention, and got me to tune in last night (though I missed the opening few minutes), so I could write a blistering rant about how wrong the review was.
Problem is, I can’t. The tone of the piece was very, very dumb, but there’s a tiny element of a valid point at the heart of it.
Not that the physics part was really confusing or hard to follow– it was fine, as these things go. A little abbreviated, maybe, but it was a perfectly good explanation of the Standard Model and the “fine-tuning” of forces needed for life as we know it.
The show as a whole was kind of a muddle, though. It didn’t spend very much time on any one topic, but jumped from one thing to another. Here’s some CGI animation of particles and forces! Here’s John Polkinghorne in a church! Garrett Lisi on a beach! Alan Guth with bubble wrap! Some guy with a brain scanner!
The God question provided a tenuous link between the segments, but there really wasn’t enough of an effort to tie them together explicitly. As a result, it felt more like watching a magazine show like NOVA scienceNOW! (OK, they don’t really have an exclamation point, but if you’re going to do eccentric capitalization, you might as well add punctuation…) than a coherent hour-long program on a single topic.
This seems to be something of a trend in science programming these days. We watched a couple of episodes of Life on Discovery before deciding that scenes of predation aren’t actually SteelyKid-friendly, and it had the same feel. “Here’s a thing that’s alive, and does some stuff. Here’s a different thing on the other side of the planet, doing completely different stuff. It’s also alive.”
There’s a fine line here, of course, because I have previously complained about NOVA programs like the Elegant Universe special they did spending thirty percent of their time recapping what went on in the previous ten minutes. But this particular show went too far in the other direction.
That doesn’t mean that the opening few paragraphs of the Times review aren’t stupid, of course– they are, and Neil Genzlinger ought to be ashamed of himself. The description of the overall show as “intermittently interesting,” though, is probably about right.