Remember all those PBS series that made science interesting, even fun? Like the kinetic "Connections"? Like the spectacular "The Making of a Continent"? Like Jonathan Miller's brainy program on the human body?
Maybe all that quality backfired somehow. Maybe those great shows resulted in a glut of young, TV-bred scientists, and PBS got the word: Please put on a show that will make science seem boring again.
Why else would the network run anything as plodding and redundant as "The Ring of Truth," a six-part series debuting tonight at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15 and at 10 p.m. on Channels 50 and 24.
Tonight's topic is "Looking" which starts off with some tolerable information about visual perception before settling into a focus on the history of lenses, with an emphasis on telescopes. The program's a visual test in itself: See if you can keep your eyes open while it's on.
Next week the subject changes to "Change," all about transformation of energy. It's even duller.
In fact, "The Ring of Truth" may go down as the dullest big-scale science show ever-- and , even more unfortunately, as the ultimate test of the non-TV-type personality as host.
In one sense, it was a noble move to hire 71-year-old polio victim Philip Morrison as host. A professor of physics at MIT, Morrison knows what he's talking about. And he certainly shouldn't have been disqualified from this TV shot, even though he makes the balding, bespectacled James Burke (of "Connections") seem like Alan Alda. Trouble is, Morrison doesn't know--as the brilliant, funny, effusive Burke does--how to convey information well in this medium.
Actually, the fault may lie more with the show's makers than with its host. Everything here is so d-r-a-w-n out. And most of it is material we've seen in previous, better science programs. There's a sequence in the "Change" episode--where we watch every step in the preparation of an experiment--that drags so badly (and so needlessly, since it winds up basically showing something Morrison had already demonstrated a few minutes earlier) that it's almost perversely enjoyable as some sort of torturous black humor.
One of the objects in this experiment is a marching-penguin toy, one of the cute-and-wacky items, from firecrackers to jelly rolls, that are gratuitously thrown in to "involve" the presumably knuckleheaded viewer. These sudden lurches from dull lecture to condescending ploys are among the many things wrong with the series. After about 30 minutes of "The Ring of Truth," you may need the ring of an alarm clock.