The Sky, the kids and Heaven

In a week when I didn’t actually watch much telly, a few things nonetheless grabbed my attention.

Firstly, The Sky at Night celebrated its 50th anniversary with the marvellous conceit of showing the eternal Patrick Moore conversing with himself on the very first episode and his successors in 2057. Apparently devised by Moore himself, it was a highly entertaining piece which still managed to be educational and informative about astronomy. The ubiquitous Jon Culshaw was used to good effect as the younger Moore, reining in his usual caricature for a believable impression on the convincingly recreated set of the show’s first broadcast, while chatting to the Moore of the present day. Highly amusing though this was, it still didn’t distract from the fact that Patrick has, in keeping with the older person, now acquired a pair of trousers the waistline of which is placed somewhere just below his armpits.

Elsewhere (on Mars, in fact), Brian May appeared to have been comically made up as Catweazle to represent his fifty years older self. While discussing what had turned out to be right and wrong in the last fifty years of astronomical speculation, May also let slip the accident that occurred in the Live Aid on the Moon show, in which Roger Taylor drummed on the landing stage of the Apollo spacecraft, unaware of its remaining fuel. Cue a shot of a spacesuited figure clutching drumsticks hurtling into space which had me laughing out loud.

It can’t be argued that The Sky at Night‘s 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating; in its history, it’s been an inspiration to many young would-be astronomers, and Patrick Moore himself is a treasured national institution. In keeping with the show that has revolved around him for five decades, Patrick still managed to both entertain and educate, and you can’t ask for better than that. It’s worth mentioning, though, that when I described this programme to a friend at work, he was convinced that I must have dreamed it…

Doctor Who, as usual when its new series begins, seemed to be everywhere this week. David Tennant appeared on Graham Norton (as it were) and a special edition of The Weakest Link, both to good comic effect, but had slightly less luck on children’s tie-in Totally Doctor Who. Slightly more polished as a production than last year, this shameless cash-in was still shot and edited in a style that made MTV look like the arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. It was apparently a bad thing to hold a single camera shot for longer than a second, but if that had to be done, the camera had an obligation to wobble and swerve alarmingly, as though its operator had had a liquid lunch. David Tennant popped up a couple of times, firstly discussing the episode he was shooting (which immediately ruined the show’s intended impression to have been shot yesterday, since shooting on the show has now wrapped) and then in the first of a serialised animated story which also utilised the talents of new companion Freema Agyeman and cult actor Anthony Head. The animation was stylishly done, but unfortunately somewhat hamstrung by a script pitched at, presumably, the less intelligent child. It’s worth remembering that just because something is made for children, it doesn’t have to talk down to them. Still, the frenetic pace of the thing leaves little room to stop for consideration, I suppose.

Elsewhere, Louis Theroux was back, insinuating himself into yet another set of objectionable oddballs in The Most Hated Family in America. This focussed on the hugely unpleasant views of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and its congregation, largely drawn from the 70-strong extended Phelps family. Church leader Fred Phelps achieved a degree of notoriety some years ago with his charming website, a testament of homophobic hate that makes Adolf Hitler look like Mother Teresa. Given that Middle America already has a bit of a problem with homophobia that contributed greatly to George Bush’s second election victory, you might at first wonder how this makes them the most hated family in America. But Phelps and co have taken their argument further. In a staggering chain of reasoning, they’ve worked out that by tolerating gays, America has doomed itself in the eyes of God, and that its many casualties in the Middle East are part of God’s judgment. Accordingly, they like to picket the funerals of recently killed soldiers, while carrying placards bearing such charming messages as “America is doomed” and “Thank God for 9/11”. Given that patriotism is probably the strongest characteristic in American society, this hasn’t gone down well.

Louis was first to be seen attending one of these pickets. Unusually for his show, he was strongly unequivocal from the first about not sharing the views of the Church. This led to many smiling women of the congregation assuring him that he was bound for hell, and that this made them very happy. Mostly guided by picket organiser Shirley Phelps, Louis was nonetheless tenacious in his pursuit of Fred, the man who’d started it all. Fred, unfortunately, was less than forthcoming. “That’s a dumb question” seemed to be his standard response in the two minutes or so before he less than politely buggered off.

The most unsettling thing about the show was its depiction of the Church’s inculcation of its hatred into the younger generations of the Phelps family. Most of these seemed to be young women in their late teens or early twenties, a few of whom Louis met.

“You’re going to Hell”, smiled an attractive young lady wearing a T-shirt that said “Italia”. Presumably Italy was less of a sinner than, say, Sweden, whose punishment of a homophobic incident led to a new website, Another young lady was a student lawyer at the local college. “Do you have friends here?” Louis gently probed. “Er… friendly acquaintances” was as far as she would go. When the rest of the world is composed of doomed sinners on their inevitable way to Hell, friends were obviously surplus to requirements.

Finally, we saw yet another funeral picket, at which Louis conversed with a pretty girl of about seven holding a placard that proclaimed “God Hates Fags”.

“Do you know what the sign means?” Louis asked. Smiling politely, the little girl replied that she didn’t. Louis then enquired the same of a ten-year-old boy called Noah, who gave the same answer. At this point, Shirley swept swiftly in to coach the children on their answers, but the point had been made; the Phelps children aren’t born to hate, they’re taught to.

A more depressing than usual show, this showed that none of Louis’ rational, lucid arguments were going to sway these rabid fanatics. As he held up a placard proclaiming that “fags eat poop”, a smiling Shirley proclaimed that this is “absolutely true”. A later gentle probe as to whether Shirley could change her worldview was met with the compelling rebuttal “not a chance, poopie-pants”.

The Phelps family are convinced that their church is the only one preaching the true message of God, and that, concomitantly, everyone else in the world is bound for Hell. It seems to me that a Heaven populated only by the Phelps family would be fairly empty, and not somewhere that I would ever like to be.

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