Arts

Television: Why are we looking for ET anyway?

The hunt for alien life is essentially atheistic. Evidence is so slim for ET that you might as well be chasing fairies at the bottom of the garden – so why do loony boffins persist? Because the discovery of an alternative civilisation hiding in the stars would prove man’s relationship with God is not unique and that the biblical narrative is therefore wrong.

I can think of no other reason why intelligent people would take part in BBC Four’s Aliens: The Big Think (Thursday, 9pm). Narrator Peter Capaldi begins by telling us that the search for little green men is “the biggest question ever asked”. Actually, I’d rank it somewhere behind: “Is Donald Trump’s hair real?”

But the show ups its intellectual bona fides by wheeling on Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, to tell us that he’s “taken up the hunt for extra-terrestrials”. This conjures an image of a batty explorer chasing an eight-legged Martian with a butterfly net. Alas, what we get is an hour of dry debate about mathematical probability, with Lord Rees concluding – apropos of nothing – that what we should be looking for isn’t organic but metallic. Aliens are apparently pedaling around the galaxy in machines, like an interstellar Wacky Races.

So intellectually weak is the whole show’s argument that anyone with a memory longer than 55 minutes will recall that this theory was shot down in the opening segment by Enrico Fermi – the scientist who once calculated that the probability of aliens doing this was, indeed, very high but that the consequences would easily be spottable from Earth.

Aliens: The Big Think never answers the question that I’ve always thought the most important about ET. Why are we the ones searching for him? Why doesn’t he come looking for us? Perhaps he’s just not into us and we should let it go. This is a risibly old-fashioned show.

Talking heads are spiced up by filming them sideways. There are Nineties-style computer graphics of Mars and B-movie footage of comedy robots to liven it all up. The only thing this mess has going for it is that it looks cheap. If the BBC spent more than £50 on making it then questions ought to be asked in the House.