For all history, men and women have built staircases to Heaven: cathedrals, pyramids, ziggurats, temples, towers, rockets and spaceships. Their pinnacles and steeples point upward -- hitchhiking thumbs for a heavenly ride.

Now "Cathedral," the television program, comes to us from the people who brought us "Castle" and will bring us "Pyramid." All three television shows are based on charming books by author-artist David Macaulay. The producers, Larry Klein and Mark Olshaker of Unicorn Projects, have their studio in Washington, which has a fine cathedral of its own, thank you.

The hour-long program will be shown tonight at 8 on Channels 22, 26 and 32. The children should be allowed to stay up to see it.

The program is a two-part invention of animation and documentary photography. The animated story describes the stone-by-stone building of a mythical but typical 13th century French cathedral. Unfortunately, Macaulay's drawings in the book are better. The other section is a God-be-praised grand tour of the cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, Bourges, Amiens, Beauvais, Notre Dame de Paris, Laon and the Royal Abbey Church of Saint Denis.

The show contains a fair amount of information about the actual building process and the villages' social structure.

The well-filmed gothic glory of the buildings will arouse loud hosannas. Flying buttresses and sturdy vaults do much to advance the view of man as only a little lower than angels. Grotesque gargoyles are cleverly filmed spewing forth storm waters while lighting illuminates their ferocities. Representations of the 40-odd guilds whose craftsmen labored on the cathedrals from before dawn to after sunset can be glimpsed working forever in the stained-glass windows.

The animated story is narrated by Derek Jacobi. Macaulay himself and actress Caroline Berg are the presenters for the real cathedrals. They are pleasant enough, but narrators of art and architecture programs, however agreeable, should be heard and not seen.

Unfortunately, the animated section interrupts the real tour rather in the manner of a child reading a comic book when he should be looking at the landmarks.

The cathedrals took years to build and centuries to patinate. An hour seems far too short a time to look at them.