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Television Review

Tale of Blood Ends With a Dire Warning

'Red Gold,' a compelling PBS documentary series, builds from a slow start to a frightening forecast.

June 22, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If your knowledge of that liquid life called blood has not been updated since the classic Disney-Frank Capra-Bell Labs documentary "Hemo the Magnificent," you might take a look at "Red Gold: The Epic Story of Blood," which begins Sunday on PBS.

Based on Douglas Starr's acclaimed book, "Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce," this strong, compelling, four-part series by WNET-TV in New York explores the myths, mysteries and challenges of blood from ancient times until today.

"Red Gold" ends with an ominous warning: Mad cow disease in Britain and new restrictions on the importation of blood from Europe threaten to undermine decades of progress in the U.S. blood bank system at a time when New York imports 25% of its blood from Europe and 4.5 million would die annually in the U.S. without transfusions. What's worse, after an initial surge in the wake of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, blood donations have dropped.

But "Red Gold" does more than just deliver the bad news about the future. It also dissects the hard work--and folly--of centuries of schemers and dreamers who pondered what to do with this red stuff that so captivates us.

Take Galen, the Roman physician who did his groundbreaking blood observations while serving as team doctor to the gladiators.

"The bloody business of mortal combat gave Galen a unique insight into the human body," says the narrator.

If "Red Gold" ends with a sock to the belly--the blood supply crisis, the AIDS catastrophe, the imperialistic conduct of U.S. blood gatherers in the Third World--it starts somewhat languidly in Episode 1, "Magic to Medicine."

Faculty politics at the University of Padua during the Renaissance are interesting, but only mildly so, as is the bloodletting of a dying George Washington.

A more journalistic approach might have worked better: Lead with the newest stuff, then go back into the history.

The stronger half of the Sunday package is Episode 2, "Blood and War," a look at how 20th century carnage forced innovations in the collection, storage and distribution of blood to save lives.

Among the gems is a mini-profile of Janet Vaughn, a British doctor who bucked the establishment during World War II and ended using a converted ice-cream truck to deliver blood for Londoners hurt by the German terror bombing. She believed in the storage of blood for emergencies when others did not.

"Science is exciting," says a chipper Vaughn. "I don't think people understand that."

Episode 3, "Tainted Blood," chronicles the rise of blood as big business, including the opening of 10 plasma collection shops on skid row in L.A. that lured donors with chits good for cheap booze. The U.S. had become the "OPEC of plasma."

"Red Gold" suggests that the 1979 downfall of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza may have been hastened by popular anger at the "house of vampires," a U.S.-owned plasma center.

Sometimes a phrase like "blood feud" is more than a metaphor.

*

The first two episodes of "Red Gold: The Epic Story of Blood" can be seen Sunday from 9 to 11 p.m. on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV. The second two can be seen June 30 at the same times.

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