Last updated: March 9, 2012 11:10 pm

Scientists, vampires and other heliophobes

It would be wonderful if history programmes concentrated on everyday phenomena

In Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey (BBC2 Sunday), Kate Humble and Helen Czerski travelled separately around the world to show the ways in which the Earth’s orbiting and spinning are registered on the Earth itself. That the Earth completes a cycle of spinning is something we tacitly acknowledge when we go to sleep (provided that we don’t have a night job), but there are other things we overlook or just don’t know about, and to discover and document these required, inevitably, a “journey of epic proportions”.

When it avoided spectacles and extremes, and concentrated on everyday phenomena, the programme was remarkably enlightening. It would be wonderful if history programmes, rather than offering a chronological trawl through recorded incidents, incorporated more material of this kind, acknowledging, for example, the degree to which commerce has been shaped by the direction of the trade winds, or taking note of the ways in which conditions on Earth have been dictated by the way it moves.

If Humble and Czerski treated the Sun with gratitude and awe, then the latest episode of Horizon, Solar Storms: The Threat to Planet Earth (BBC2, Tuesday) portrayed it as sinister and destructive. There were no presenters this time, just a succession of pointy-talking-heads and the actor Steven Mackintosh scare-mongering on the voiceover.

The programme wanted to alert viewers to the dangers of space weather – exploding sunspots, solar flares, “colossal eruptions”, and so on – but it went about it the wrong way. The scientists made a strong case for the possibility of future solar storms, and their adverse effects, but the programme’s rhetoric – melodramatic score, apocalyptic imagery, narration – sought to make as much as it could of the bad news. It seemed we might be left with the idea, expressed by one scientist, that the average magnetic field strength inside sunspots is decreasing, that solar storms will become less frequent and less energetic – then the voiceover reminded us that “a definitive scenario is hard to come by”. Soon after, it seemed we were being left with the balanced message that we “may be more vulnerable but we’ve never been better prepared”, and then the voiceover: “One thing is certain – we ignore this phenomenon at our peril.”

Solar Storms was hardly helpful in its strategies, but its message would have been hard to take anyway: we prefer our anxieties dramatised and sublimated – ideally by a genre that allows us to find these anxieties far-fetched. If we harbour a plausible fear of something, it’s best to turn it into something that looks superstitious. We worry about mortality, human atavism and primitivism, the natural world, about the potential power of the Sun and Moon – and vampire narratives take all of this and turn it into a form of fantasy, into something we can safely not believe in. Since most people don’t believe in vampires, vampirism serves as a repository for existing fears, rather than a source of new ones.

Of the two series currently playing with the idea of the vampire as maligned or misunderstood outsider, True Blood (FX Sunday), starring Anna Paquin and set in Louisiana, is the more polished, elaborate, seductive and baffling. Now in its fourth season, the programme has built such an extensive community and mythology that occasional watchers – I’m one – can rely on feeling pleasurably out of their depth. As with the more intimate and prosaic English series Being Human (BBC3 Sunday), the recipe contains a large dose of irony. Earnestness is a taboo these days, at least among the wised-up, and both these programmes avoid the breathy lyricism of the Twilight films by delivering a clever juxtaposition of the other-worldly and the everyday.

Characters in True Blood say things like “I’m a police officer and werepanther, back off!” Characters in Being Human say things like “I’m absolutely cream-crackered – full Moon last night.” The programmes work well and quite freely – they aren’t limited to their initial equation of vampires with social outsiders or freaks or whatever. But again and again, they reveal that the vampire figure is unusually well-equipped to serve symbolic and allegorical functions. At one point in this week’s episode of True Blood, a newly turned vampire reflected on the lifestyle, and it emerged that being a vampire was like being human – as Being Human implies – only more so.

The splendidly named documentary Vampire Skeletons Mystery (National Geographic Thursday), a mixture of on-site excavation and dismal re-enactment, was an attempt to reconcile superstition with empiricism in which, among other sights, an archaeologist complained that people of his profession paid little attention to folklore. There was some cultural history offered along the way, including a brief account of the vampire myth, its birth and growth. But for the most part, the programme was interested in showing that the myth had a kind of basis in fact. Vampires may be a channel for the vulnerability of human life, but another way for human beings to fend off a sense of vulnerability is to find ways of vindicating our anxieties – to have “our darkest fears” corroborated by rational means.

small.screen@ft.com

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