(Sun. (8), 8 p.m.-2 a.m.; Mon. (9), 8-11:30 p.m., KCET) Produced by VPRO, Netherlands. Producers, Wim Kayzer, Nellie Kamer; directors, Kayzer, Max Kisman, Lies Ros, Rob Schroder; camera, Jochgem Van Dijk, Erik Van Empel, Ellen Jens; editor, Tjerk Boersma; sound, Joris Van Ballegoijen, Menno Euwe. U.S. wraparounds produced by WNET, New York. Producer, script, Catherine A. Twohill; director, John Edwards; lighting director, Robert J. Culley; editor, Bonnie Rae Brickman; sound, Frank Brown Jr. Host: George Page With: Oliver Sacks, Rupert Sheldrake, Daniel C. Dennett,Stephen Toulmin, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, Wim Kayzer. An archetype of the cynic’s notion of public television, “A Glorious Accident” presents six talking eggheads discussing densely technical subjects with few graphics or other visual aids, interviewed by a Dutch filmmaker in accented English for an edited eight hours, spread over two nights 10 hours including interruptions for pledge breaks. “If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?” indeed.
However, as host George Page points out in segments produced to introduce U.S. airings, when the program ran in the Netherlands in 1993, it was watched by 10% of the Dutch population, and a book based on it reached best-sellerdom. And, according to KCET sources, the program was “extremely popular” during a Gotham pledge drive on WNET in June 1994. An imposing chunk of programming, it gives viewers something to think about and is occasionally quite amusing. This is the kind of “pure science” that is supported by educational institutions and grant money, as there is no immediate or even predictable financial reward for considering whether, in the words of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, “what we are matters.” (It does, viewers will be relieved to know.)
First six one-hour segments are interviews with Caucasian male thinkers on home turf as far afield (most are British) as North Andover, Mass., and Lisbon, Portugal; they cogitate individually with producer-interviewer Wim Kayzer about mankind’s place in the cosmos. Final, two-hour seg gathers all six to toss the bull collectively, so to speak. First four segments are spent with neurologist Oliver Sacks, biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, philosopher Dennett and philosopher-historian-physicist Stephen Toulmin. None is particularly dynamic. Sacks is no Robin Williams, who played a character based on him in “Awakenings,” and Toulmin is a real gloomy Gus, predicting that the Holocaust will be repeated , with a different agenda and different victims. A lot of the material in these four conversations is pretty impenetrable stuff, no matter how hard the theoreticians strive to explain it. One longs for a James Burke to bring these Great Thoughts to street level. And an editor; the conversations tend to wander. Most interesting of the four may be Sheldrake, whose theory of “formative causation” has all but caused some other scientists to call for burning him at the stake.
The way he explains it with anecdotal evidence including English students solving crossword puzzles and odd behavior by a species of small British bird it almost sounds plausible. High point for most viewers who aren’t grad students in philosophy may be segments featuring Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould. A physicist with the most practical experience of any of the six (he has worked on nuclear and space programs, among other activities), Dyson begins with a perceptive, frequently witty description of his World War II experience, first as a frustrated pacifist, then as a barely willing participant in the bombing of Dresden. He’s the first in the series to even mention religion as something to be practiced in everyday life, the first to suggest the possibility of extraterrestrial beings. He’s also the only one in the first six hours to mention the concept of “fun.” The affable Gould is a paleontologist who, when not studying West Indian land snails at Harvard, is a well-known popularizer of science, with several books to his credit.
He came up with the phrase “glorious accident,” describing the asteroid crashing into Earth resulting in the extinction of dinosaurs and ultimate triumph of mammals and man. Even though he doesn’t appear on camera during the first six segs, it’s hard not to accuse the nattily eye-patched Kayzer of a certain pretentiousness, tossing about literary quotations in French and German as if his typical viewer didn’t need a translation (of course, his typical Dutch viewer, already watching the series in English, probably understood the other languages, too), and taking pains to explain what a dogged interviewer he is. In the final segment, Kayzer appears onscreen, to moderate a symposium in which all six scientists are placed around a table and encouraged to duke it out for eight hours (reduced to two for broadcast) in a sort of a “McLaughlin Group” for intellectuals, with the one-upmanship, if not the yelling.
Topics of the often giddy deliberation range from the existence of a soul, to the intellectual vs. aesthetic arguments for vegetarianism (Gould positing, with tongue somewhat in cheek, that even a carrot is quite highly evolved), to the seemingly ludicrous question of whether the sun thinks. Sheldrake’s discussion of the British and Japanese wartime Pigeon Corps is a hoot; and, for a second, Sacks sounds like a vacuous TV interviewer when he wonders (kiddingly, we hope), “What is it like to be a herring?” Todd Everett