Rob Gowland previews
National public television programs
Sun October 27 — Sat November 2
The sperm whale is a gentle, timid creature. Except in the mating season, when males will fight other males for possession of the most females. On November 20, 1820, in the whales' mating grounds of the mid-Pacific, the Nantucket whaler the Essex was struck by a huge sperm whale. Stunned, the whale lay beside the whaler momentarily before swimming off, only to turn and charge the small ship. No longer than a tennis court, and worn out by twenty years' battling with the ferocity of the ocean, the Essex's timbers could not withstand the charge of the giant and the ship foundered. The whale swam away while the whaler's crew took to three small boats. They were thousands of miles from land. After a nightmare voyage of three months, in which death and cannibalism figured prominently, the few lucky survivors in two of the boats were rescued. The third boat was never found. The survivors' accounts formed the basis for Herman Melville's classic of a vengeful whale Moby Dick. But Melville's story ends with the sinking of the whaler. As Moby Dick: The True Story (ABC 7:30pm Sunday) shows, the real human story took place afterwards. An acted documentary, the program, directed by Christopher Rowley, is very well done, although reliance on computer simulations for sailing ships at sea leaves a bit to be desired. What the program does do very well is to show what a bloody, gruesome business whaling was (and is — the Japanese and Norwegians still do it, after all). It also explains how and why a whale could attack a ship, albeit a small ship. The Big Picture: Nuclear Terrorism: Blinding Horizons (ABC 8.30pm Wednesday) is a piece of Bush Administration scaremongering in support of the "war on terrorism". It's from National Geographic, and it even includes a walk around Kabul to show us how much Afghanistan has benefitted from the US military's waging war against it. We are given a glowing account of the US in action against "the Taliban". But the main thrust of the program is to convince us that terrorists could get "a nuclear device", that Al Qaeda wants to get nuclear weapons, that the White House takes the threat very seriously, etc, etc. There is not the slightest hint that terrorism could be a reaction to US policies, or that the US is anything other than the poor innocent victim of irrational hatred by "fanatics", whose access to weapons of mass destruction we must stop at all costs. The BBC telemovie The Secret (ABC 8.30pm Friday) looks and plays like a television drama rather than a cinema movie. It is competently acted and quite well directed, especially the opening, dealing with the apparent killing of a child by two older children. This childhood crime is the secret of the title, a secret that causes designer Emma Farraday (played by Hadyn Gwynne) considerable angst as an adult. For good measure there's manslaughter. amnesia, adultery and attempted suicide to keep the viewers interested. However, I did not warm to it, I am afraid. This may not be the program's fault so much as mine: subjective reactions are not a reliable guide to a film's artistic worth. The dams being built by Turkey on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will have a devastating effect on the people of Iraq, downriver from the dams, who will have their water supply severly interrupted if not stopped altogether, but no one seems to care about that. However, a number of archeologists got their nickers well and truly in a twist when they realised that the dams would submerge (and destroy) the ancient Greco-Roman city of Zeugma. Founded in 300BC by one of Alexander the Great's generals, Zeugma was largely unexcavated. A frantic race began to first discover what was there and then to record it and, if possible, preserve at least some of it. They had less than five years in which to arouse world scientific interest and about six months of actual digging time. It was of course an impossible task but with money from the French government they did make some remarkable discoveries. These included a Roman villa with 250 square metres of perfectly preserved frescoes and 750 metres of intact mosaic floors, all connected with the cult of the God Dionysus. These are priceless masterpieces and invaluable sources of information on the history of the Hellenistic and Roman Near East. They came close to being lost forever. Who can say what other treasures and historic artefacts have been drowned by the Birecik Dam that flooded Zeugma? In As It Happened: The Last Days Of Zeugma (SBS 7.30pm Saturday), the frantic struggle to uncover and record this historic site for posterity is related, and the question is asked why the realisation that the dam's construction would destroy forever such archaeological riches did not mean it's building at least being delayed if not stopped. Already condemned for displacing 30,000 people, the Birecik dam means the loss of "large parts of universal memory, the destruction of the heritage of humanity. What future can justify the sacrifice of memory?" I don't rate Rex Stout's sleuth Nero Wolf as one of my favourite literary private eyes. Despite his excessive weight ("a seventh of a ton"), his gourmet appetite and his self absorption, he is a bore of a character. His acolyte cum assistant (and the nominal chronicler of his cases), Archie Goodwin, is more believably human, as are the assorted villains and victims that pass through the novels and stories. Stout's forte is intriguing plots. Wolf has been filmed only twice before for the cinema (in the '30s) and once for TV (in the '70s). Now we have a new TV series, beginning with a movie-length episode A Nero Wolfe Mystery: The Golden Spiders (ABC 9.30pm Saturday). For the series, it is noticeable that Wolf's behaviour (as well as his girth) has been toned down, and Archie's role has been enhanced, to the benefit of them both. Maury Chaykin plays Nero Wolfe about as woodenly as you could and still be listed as the star of the series. He only really comes alive in the denoument scene, where all the suspects are assembled by an obliging police force and the killer manouvred into confessing all. The actual star of the show is however Timothy Hutton who plays Archie Goodwin. The series is set in 1950s New York (with Toronto standing in for the Big Apple back then). The series doesn't look like the 'forties, but does look like the films of the 'forties, snarling cops and all.