TV UK, 12 October

The real conflict will take place not in Afghanistan, but in space, as satellites relay competing visions of civilisation past and present.

Dolan Cummings

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Back in the 1960s, the Americans got it into their heads that the Russians were doing secret nuclear tests on the dark side of the moon. They launched a satellite to investigate, but it didn’t find any Russians. Instead, it picked up great big bursts of gamma rays that seemed to be coming from the other side of the universe.

After ruling out Chinese involvement, scientists struggled to make sense of the phenomenon, which suggested explosions so big that they would violate the laws of physics. (And that’s got to be big.) They seem to have figured it out now. Horizon – The Death Star (BBC2, Thursday 18 at 9pm) tells the story of the discovery of hypernovas.

It is the Arab presence in space that troubles the Americans now. US secretary of state Colin Powell has asked the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, to exert pressure on Al-Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite TV channel. Al-Jazeera is the station of the moment because it is the only broadcaster allowed in Afghanistan, and the US government has accused it of stoking up anti-American sentiment, especially in its reports from Palestine.

Presumably this attempt to censor the only remotely free broadcaster in the region is a bid to win fundamentalist hearts and minds, by reassuring them that the leaders of the Western world don’t really believe in freedom and all that nonsense after all.

In the days following the first American revenge attacks on Afghanistan, the colourful Al-Jazeera logo brightened up screens that were otherwise black except for the occasional green dot floating into the distance. This is war as we have come to know it over the past 10 years: a hi-tech light show over a murky landscape in a country far, far away.

As last week’s Battlefields reminded us, though (BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm), there is nothing new about air war. The programme was about the work of Bomber Command during the Second World War. The initial policy of destroying only military targets gave way to a strategy of civilian demoralisation by blanket bombing. That would be the comfortable option in Afghanistan, but after the up-close-and-personal images of destruction in New York, the brass are as sick of the old script as anybody else. The appetite now seems to be for a Band of Brothers-style ground war, to prove that the West is still willing to make sacrifices in the name of civilisation.

Untold: an Indian Affair (Channel 4, Sundays at 8pm) began last week with the startling revelation that the British Empire in India was not built in pursuit of some high moral purpose. Apparently it was about money and politics and stuff. Well, who woulda thunk it?

Presenter Maria Misra seems to have been picked from the famous Channel 4 Directory of Foxy Academics. She manages to make India look cool in both senses of the word by swanning about breezily in a series of immaculate Eurasian-couture outfits. I never notice these things, and even I was impressed.

The look of the programme is not trivial, because ultimately Untold is feelgood TV. In the first episode we were told that pre-Imperial India was the first multicultural society, and that Indians and Europeans treated one another with mutual respect. This is, frankly, nice. And this week’s revelation about the Indian disdain for British standards of personal hygiene is enough to warm the hearts even of the sort of people who order omelette and chips in Indian restaurants.

The battle is on for Western civilisation, but the battle lines are not nearly as clean cut as George W Bush thinks. The real conflict will take place not in Afghanistan, but in space, as satellites relay competing visions of civilisation past and present. It is an intriguing time to be on the sofa.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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