Planets at work


Meet, as they say, the neighbours from hell. Venus, a second Earth, except it dozes under a duvet of cloud; Mercury, boiling by day, freezing by night; the big fella, Jupiter, a thousand times greater than Earth, enduring for centuries a world-size storm; Saturn, with its 1,000 km-an-hour winds; and Uranus, way out there, drunkenly orbiting the Sun on its back. But perhaps most dangerous of all is Pluto, ruler of the dark regions and Mickey Mouse's dog. By the end of the first episode of The Planets (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), the once missing planet had been promoted to the "missing link in the formation of the giants". As one of the loopier contributors to this artfully nutty documentary series put it: "Pluto went from being a lonely, remote oddball to being the grandfather of a population."

The Planets, which took three years and several billennia to make, tells two stories at once. The first is about how our neighbours tore into town, a dangerous process still going on at such a pace that, according to another boffin, nature should erect a sign saying: "Danger! Keep Out. Solar System Under Construction." The second is about our attempts to fathom it. It is difficult, at this point, to say which narrative will prove the more entertaining.

The planets got a head start from the amount of personification they were awarded by the narrative (the ancient Greeks had nothing on David McNab, the producer of this BBC co-production with America's A&E network). As they grew out of cosmic dust, the bigger the planets got the more they could eat. The "big guys" kept gobbling up all the little guys, until it became an eating race. When they reached a sufficient corpulence, the inner plants started to "perturb" one another. "Earth-shattering collisions were inevitable," the narrator Sam West explained, making it the first time out into the real world for a cliche hitherto used only metaphorically. The solar system's teenage years were dysfunctional, we were told - the metaphors rolling back in.

"It was a wild frat party," continued Professor Hal Levison, who was leading the response from Earth to the proposition that the only thing queerer than folk are the planets they peer at. Hal looks like a cross between the editor of Granta and the guy across the Formica table who owns the Harley Davidson outside. We found him, fully stetsoned, in the Arizona desert where he was pouring earth through his hands like a 19th-century gold prospector. He seems to have got the planetary bug while smoking. How, he wondered, could nebula as fine as cigarette smoke form a galaxy? (He didn't say what was in his cigarette.)

The programme was edited so as to create its own mysteries. What was Hal doing out in this desert? Didn't he have an observatory to go to? Later, after the computers had shown the planets hurling things at one another, we returned to Hal. Had Earth escaped craterisation? The camera pulled back to reveal that Hal was standing on the lip of a huge hollow. "Just a small, insignificant hole in the ground," he said, experimenting with litotes as an antidote to his enthusiasm - "but made in a matter of seconds."

Hal was in a fine tradition of vicarious inter-planetary explorers, who included Immanuel Kant, Wernher von Braun (" 'Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down, that's not my department,' cries Wernher von Braun," wrote Tom Lehrer of the V Rocket man) and Yuri Silaev, the Martin Sheen lookalike who tightened the nuts on Sputnik and said his people were amazed that such a thing could have been made by "ordinary Russian blokes". A few pioneers went unnamed. When a probe finally sent pictures back of Mercury's craters, the resident general in Mission Control went: "Isn't that beautiful? It's just like a 52-drop in 'Nam." It must have galled their successors that not one of their fly-by photo-ops of alien terrains could produce images to compare with the series' fantastical computer generations.

The programme began with Clyde Tombaugh, who built his first telescope out of parts of a Buick car on his father's farm. By the mid 1920s, astronomers had concluded there was a ninth planet, but it took Clyde, out in Arizona again, to spot it as a tiny shifting speck around the star Delta Geminorum. Tombaugh combed his hair, straightened his tie and went to tell his boss: "I have discovered your Planet X." His name was promptly forgotten. In 1992, however, five years before his death, Nasa wrote asking his permission to visit his planet. In a final flight of fancy, a scientist assured us that when the Pluto-Kuiper Express is launched in 2003 it will be manned: by Tombaugh's spirit.

This series puts the gee-whizz, the Patrick Moore/James Burke factor, back into space for the first time since the Apollos. If Martin Amis had seen it in time, he might never have written his celestially gloomy novels The Information and Night Train. The BBC's planets are the greatest show off Earth.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special