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TV REVIEW : 'Infinite Voyage': Still Covering New Ground

January 06, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

"The Infinite Voyage," which appears to be the most costly and solemn science series since "Cosmos," is a three-year-long celebration, airing quarterly, of scientific discovery and exploration. Funded by Digital Equipment Corp., it is appearing on both PBS and commercial television.

The second program, "To the Edge of the Earth," airs tonight on PBS (8 p.m. on Channels 28, 15 and 24, 9 p.m. on Channel 50) and Monday night on KTTV Channel 11.

It follows five teams of scientists to the Earth's extremes. Anthropologists examine nomads who live at 17,000 feet in the Himalayas. A mini-sub watches a new volcanic island, Loihi, being formed in the Hawaiian chain. Scuba divers explore a cave in the Galapagos. A UC Santa Barbara scientist climbs trees 100 feet high as she and her crew research the jungle canopy in Costa Rica. Still others examine a kind of walrus graveyard that is part of an anomalous fertile spot, called a polynya, in the high Arctic.

Many of the images are genuinely thrilling, not least the footage of the lava boiling hundreds of feet beneath the sea. The show ought to have celebrated the ingenuity and sheer courage of the cameraman who took the pictures.

It is one thing for the ever-breathless narration to note that the divers are risking their lives in the unexplored caves. But what of the camera that got there first and is gazing back as they arrive? Another cameraman climbed even higher in those jungle trees to look down on the action.

But the program preserves the photojournalistic myth of the invisible or non-present camera. (In magazine days, "The new widow, alone with her grief" was in fact trying to ignore the photographer, his assistant and a reporter, all the while taking direction from the photographer about how she should look. But it did make a swell picture.)

The narrative on "The Infinite Voyage" in general tends toward the voice-of-the-ages portentous, but when it is most specific about what is being sought and found it is, not surprisingly, most interesting. It will have a familiar ring to those who have followed the home life of the quail on all those PBS nature docs.

Yet the series is a fine and valid idea. There is real excitement in the proof that the Earth is not yet explored-out and that not all scientists work in Star Trek labs in white coats but put their lives at risk in places and situations where the credit card is unheard of, let alone accepted.

An early Henry Luce bulletin to his editors said: "Never overestimate the reader's information but never underestimate the reader's intelligence." "The Infinite Voyage" could well risk a little less rhetorical patronizing of its viewers, although the series title itself sets the course--and the problem.

David Vassar is writer-producer for the series, which is a production of the admirable and aggressive WQED in Pittsburgh, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences. Thomas Skinner and Gregory Andorfer are co-executive producers.

Paul Atkins shot the undersea volcano. The other credited cinematographers are Christopher Tufty, Michael Dillon and Peter Pilafian. All credit to them.

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