"The Creation of the Universe" is nothing to be sneezed at, although what could be considered a very large sneeze may have had something to do with it. Public television, which has tackled subjects of no less magnitude than "Civilisation," "The Ascent of Man" and the "Cosmos," polishes off the creation of the universe in a mere 90 minutes tonight, at 9 on Channel 26.
Science writer Timothy Ferris is the host and Lord High Explainer for a journey that is often fascinating, often confounding, always rather pretty. In a prologue of sorts, cosmologist Michael Turner says that so far as scientific inquiry is concerned, what happened in the universe's development from one one-hundredth of a second after the big bang to right now is "pretty much nailed down."
It's that pesky little one-hundredth of a second that remains the great mystery, and the focus of most of what follows on the program.
Ferris and producer-director Geoff Haines-Stiles have been unpretentious and enterprising in making this a picturesque inquiry. The host pops up against such varied locales as Times Square, Central Park (grazing ground for mastadons way back in pre-Reaganite epochs), Venice, some spot on the Swiss-French border and Einstein's blackboard at Princeton, expounding all the while in a likably, accessibly nerdy way. Bob and Ray, the great comedy team, were called in to do the voices of baseball game announcers unduly concerned with gravitational pull and electromagnetic fields. Fancy animation effects and an otherworldly (or at least enigmatically thisworldly) musical score by Brian Eno are part of the diversionary tactics.
And cinematographer Francis Kenny knows how to make not only the Alps look good, but also the various physicists and stargazers Ferris interviews. Certainly the most unusual of these is Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, who is confined to a wheelchair and whose speech has been rendered almost completely unintelligible by a degenerative disease. In a classroom, he makes strange sounds that are translated by an assistant and passed along to appreciative students. The scene has a bizarre Kubrickian kick.
The purpose of the program is "to learn something about how everything got the way it is," Ferris says, and while much of it seems directed toward that end, and in language and symbols a lay person can understand (Galileo's love affair with the telescope was a good career move, it is noted), once Ferris gets into quarks and quasars and photons and protons and X-particles and Z-particles, some viewers may feel they are at 20,000 fathoms in alphabet soup. It all begins to sound a little like the script for "Dune."
Physicist Leon Lederman could be speaking on behalf of a large portion of the audience when he says the problem with the prevailing matrix of theories on the creation of the universe is that "it's too complicated." That leads Ferris, slowly but surely, to a confrontation with the biblical version of the creation in question and to uttering words that sound, in this context, more comfortingly simple than ever: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth."
Really, that does cover it ginger-peachy.
Ferris points out that science and religion need not be considered natural enemies and compares 14th-century cathedrals with the design of the Fermilab particle accelerator in the Midwest. He ends up in a lighthouse looking out the windows for a grand unified theory that will explain everything. Everything, and perhaps, as the poet says (what poet? Oh, some poet must have said it): Nothing.
On "The McLaughlin Group," Jack Germond once uttered perhaps the most succinct political analysis heard in all 15 billion years of the universe's existence. After a lengthy and acrimonious discussion of the president's State of the Union address and its every conceivable effect and ramification, Germond said: "Big speech, big deal." You could watch all of tonight's "Creation" special and be moved and impressed and dazzled, but you could also come away thinking "Big bang, big deal" as well. Ferris brings imagination and inventiveness to this most enormous of topics, but the one thing he really doesn't bring is passion. 'Season's Greetings From the Honeymooners'
Television's Christmas season can be said to begin tonight as Channel 5 prematurely unreels "Season's Greetings From the Honeymooners," a two-hour syndicated special at 8. The best policy for viewers, at least those equipped with videocassette recorders, might be to tape the special and play it back closer to the holidays, when its various lapses can be overlooked in a spirit of forgiving revelry.
The first hour, actually, is quite something, a departure from the other "lost" "Honeymooners" shows that have aired. This one is a nearly complete one-hour "Jackie Gleason Show" from the early '50s in which Ralph and Alice Kramden play host to the gallery of other characters Gleason played with such ferocious aplomb on the program. Actually, only Alice plays host. Since trick photography and videotape effects were out of the question, Ralph had to be dropped from the picture so that the other characters could appear. The writers, not too cleverly, send him off on a quest for potato salad.
That frees Gleason to return in numerous cherishable guises: as toadying simpleton Fenwick Babbitt, who always told strangers, threatening or friendly, "You're a nice man" (or "woman"); Joe the Bartender, the agreeably garrulous savant vivant; and the uproarious Reginald Van Gleason III, bulbous tippler of a millionaire in a stovepipe hat, who arrives chez Kramden in the company of a Dixieland band and a flutter of chorines. "All right, let it rip!" he roars, the band tears into "That's A-Plenty," and soon Van Gleason is tripping the light bombastic with magnificent abandon.
Chaplinesque and Laughtonesque, farceur and tragedian, the Great One was also an inspired mad dancer.
The finest moment is when Gleason enters as the Poor Soul and makes good on an elaborate setup planted earlier by Bartender Joe. In respect for the character, whose appearances were always in mime, the rest of the cast goes momentarily mute and the orchestra plays "Tenderly."
The remainder of this "special" consists of only so-so material from the old days (including a few numbers from the Dorsey brothers and the band), but the Gleason gallery is a joy to encounter again. Trixie Norton puts it in perspective after the exit of the Poor Soul. "Sure makes you misty, all right," she says. Sure does. 'Juveniles and Justice'
The chronically underfunded Sheila Banks, a veritable one-woman public affairs department at WETA, returns gamely to the air tonight with a one-hour special, "Juveniles and Justice," at 10:30 on Channel 26. Essentially a series of deadly interviews to which feeble visuals have been added, the program nonetheless makes earnest stabs at analyzing the making of the kiddy criminal.
After recounting such cases as that of a 7-year-old District boy allegedly beaten and slashed to death by a 10-year-old playmate and a 12-year-old Philadelphia girl charged with shooting her uncle in the back, Banks interviews Tommy, 15, a youthful offender who began taking drugs at 12, and his parents. Unfortunately Tommy and parents all preferred being shot in silhouettes with their voices altered, which wouldn't be quite so bad if the interviews didn't go on and on and on.
The ensuing parade of experts includes Judge David Ross of Prince George's County, who says the problem parents are those who don't care enough about their kids and those who care too much; child psychiatrist Frances Welsing, who says children often turn to drugs out of depression over their home lives; John Wideman, the author of "Brothers and Keepers," about the environment/heredity quotient in accounting for sociopathic behavior; and Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, who says studies show the typical offender to have a 90 IQ, a short but muscular build and inconsistently permissive parents.
While much of the information is worth getting, it is imparted in ways that include clumsy and numbing. The program represents an honest grapple with troubling social dilemmas, but one that might have been twice as good at half the length.