Stuck for what to watch on the box this weekend? Here’s a handy guide to the best of the unmissable TV coming up, with there being a focus on revealing documentaries lending fascinating insights into people, nature and the universe.
Is There Life on Mars?
Friday 5th February at 7.55pm on PBS America (CH 276)
No, it’s not yet another tribute to the late great David Bowie. This is literally about the question of life on the red planet, with some of the world’s top interplanetary boffins weighing in on the various exciting possibilities.
What is it about Mars that we humans find so infinitely fascinating? Venus, another comparable planet, doesn’t get half as much love. Perhaps it’s because Mars is red, and looks really awesome (Venus, meanwhile, is a hell-hole of raging heat, quite undeserving of its ravishing name). Yet, while sci-fi writers have long rhapsodised about the idea of alien civilisations on Mars, the planet has long disappointed us on that front. Or has it?
This documentary tells the full epic story of our adventures on the red planet, from the great Viking Lander expeditions of the 1970s – which gave us our first real look at the surface – to the more recent robot visitors we’ve sent over. NASA officials talk us through some of the incredible revelations that have come from these missions, and reveal exactly how they control their metal contraptions and get them to run intimate tests on Martian soil from right here on Earth. In other words, this is absolute heaven for space geeks – and we might even get some clues about the whole “life” question as well.
What's the verdict?
A quick Google search reveals that even today, newspapers like to run sensationalist stories of Pompeii-like alien ruins on Mars. It’s a fantasy we just can’t shake off, but the scientific reality, revealed by this film, is so much more interesting and out of this world.
Earth’s Greatest Spectacles
Friday 5th February at 9pm on BBC Two (CH 102)
A sumptuous voyage through the blazing colours of New England, this brand new natural history documentary is both soothing and mind-blowing at the same time.
Recently seen striding around like some kind of space Nazi in the new Star Wars flick, Domhnall Gleeson is on rather softer form as the narrator of this new series. Having shrieked his way through various scenes in that movie, he was probably rather grateful to give his vocal chords a lighter work out for Earth’s Greatest Spectacles. Applying his lilting, lyrical tones to this gentle film, he makes the ideal guide to the glorious plant life and quirky wildlife – the chipmunks carefully stockpiling their nuts would have had people cooing on their sofas across the land.
Another star of the show is a green rattlesnake, coiled pensively by a log, patiently awaiting his scurrying rodent prey. It’s remarkable how some great filmmaking can really bring out the personality of an animal we usually regard with knee-jerk fear. He is almost heroic in those slow-burning moments. Speaking of burning, the sight of the New England landscape transforming into autumnal fire, the trees erupting in reds and oranges, is probably the standout moment of the whole episode.
What’s the verdict?
Well, this is certainly the exact sort of programme you want to curl up in front of as the February winds howl outside. And who’d have thought a rattlesnake could look so cute?
Natural Born Outlaws
Saturday 6th February at 9pm on Discovery (CH 250)
Dramatic re-enactments, juicy interviews and even the occasional bit of animation all piece together the story of Bruce Reynolds, the master criminal who pulled off the most notorious heist in British history.
The Great Train Robbery of 1963 continues to be one of the most controversial cases of all time – mainly because we don’t quite know how to think of it. Was it a big thrilling escapade pulled off by a band of modern Merry Men, or nothing more than a vicious crime enacted by two-bit thugs? To be fair, the media has largely treated it as the former – there was the Phil Collins movie Buster, and the general fondness with which journalists regarded Ronnie Biggs, and the laddish mythologisation of the Train Robbery as a sort of real-life equivalent of The Italian Job. A great British caper.
Well, since this show is called Natural Born Outlaws, we’re guessing it will be following in that vein, treating the ringleader Bruce Reynolds as a charismatic rogue rather than a brutal ruffian. To be fair, his story IS fascinating – the career criminal who saw each job as a work of art, and even referred to the Great Train Robbery as his version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This is the story of how these unlikely bespectacled chap pulled it all off, and what became of him afterwards.
What’s the verdict?
Whether you’re a true crime buff or merely curious about a landmark case in criminal history, this promises to be entertaining and enlightening viewing. All these decades later, the Great Train Robbery still looms just as large.
Catacombs Of Palermo
Saturday 6th February at 9pm on National Geographic (CH 266)
Where is the world’s biggest collection of mummies? Egypt, perhaps? The answer, as we discover in this show, is Italy, and we go deep underground to inspect the mysterious, macabre catacombs which they call home.
With all these TV channels at our disposal, and every evening bringing batches of documentaries from across the globe, it’s easy to feel all knowledged-out. Hopping from programmes about space travel to deep ocean fish to Nazi flying saucers, you’d be forgiven for just flopping back, your brain bulging with Too Much Information. But then a programme like this comes along to make even the most jaded documentary junkie sit up straight and pay attention. Because who knew – WHO KNEW? – that Italy was home to so many eerily preserved mummies?
Well, a lot of people do know, of course. That’s why the Catacombs Of Palermo are such a popular tourist attraction. This documentary reveals the strange and unlikely history of the catacombs, and how being preserved for posterity became a status symbol for the Italian poshos of a bygone era. The most surreal specimen, and a focus of this film, is Rosalia Lombardo, a little girl whose body is so well mummified that it’s bizarre to think she’s been dead for almost a century. The grisly details of her preservation, involving transfusions of alcohol and trace elements, make for particularly interesting – if odd – television.
What's the verdict?
Queasily gripping, in a “Why do I need to know this, and why can’t I stop watching?”, this is a genuinely eye-opening look at how mummification lasted well into the modern era. We’ll certainly never think of Italy in quite the same way again.
The Ibiza Weekender
Sunday 7th February at 9pm on ITV2 (CH 115)
Is the dreary winter weather making you hanker for sunnier climes, and crazed adventures abroad? Of course it is. Which is why you’ll definitely be wanting to watch The Ibiza Weekender. Just remember to switch your brain off first.
Holiday reps. True ambassadors for Britain abroad, aren’t they? So genteel. So refined. So lashed out of their heads on booze that every night culminates in a kind of debauchery-circus that would make Caligula blush. OK, we’re painting a bit of a caricature here, but that’s perfectly appropriate when discussing a show called Ibiza Weekender. After all, it’s not like the reps on this series WON’T be ridiculous cartoon characters of riotous excess. That’s the whole point of this show existing: so we can gape and gawp at what they get up to.
Basically, it’s a programme about people with names like Jordan and Deano getting stuck into all kinds of shenanigans at a resort hotel. Thanks to all the cameras that have been fixed everywhere, we won’t miss any of the juicy action – expect drunken snogs, drunken arguments, drunken dancing, and a lot of things that would fall under the umbrella term “hi-jinks”. Plus, pecs. Quite a lot of pecs.
What's the verdict?
Trashy entertainment of the highest order, this will be as frothy as a freshly popped bottle of Lambrini, with roughly the same after-effects of headache and regret. Get stuck in.
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