herald

Sunday 19 August 2018

A strange look at the past

Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth (BBC1)
Shameless USA (More4)

I THOUGHT it would be novel to write today's review of Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth, an account of how Homo sapien triumphed over Homo erectus in the great evolutionary punch-up, entirely in caveman language.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that our ancestors, far from being primitive and inarticulate, spoke perfect English. The Homo sapiens also appear to have had access to a wide range of cosmetics and hair care products, as well as some top-class dentistry.

Everyone in the programme had great teeth -- except, of course, for the less well-developed Homo erectus, who were ugly, unkempt yobs with lousy molars and worse personal hygiene habits. I'll bet they didn't even wash their hands for 20 seconds after using the toilet, the dirty sods.

Seriously, though, Planet of the Apemen was one extremely strange piece of work: a dramatised documentary that paired riveting science with a risible mini-movie about a wholesome family -- Mr and Mrs Sapien and their teenage son -- running across the wilds of India, pursued by Homo erectus hunters.

When mum falls ill from drinking bad water, dad heads off to find food but is attacked by the hunters, who bash his head in with a rock and later eat him, leaving sonny boy as the head of the family.

Homo erectus loved their meat red and bloody; when food was scarce, they'd eat anything, including the other species of humans they shared the planet with, and most likely cannibalised the corpses of their own dead, too.

It was hard to keep a straight face watching a bunch of extras in prosthetic make-up and bad wigs grunting and hopping about the place. Luckily, there was enough serious scientific stuff here, imparted by various experts, to hold the interest.

Some 75,000 years ago, Mount Topa in India erupted. The toxic fallout spread to the sub-continent, poisoning rivers, wiping out wildlife and spawning acid rain.

The erectus, with their strong, athletic bodies and fierce nature, were more suited to the landscape, but the sapiens, who had bigger brains and better communication skills, survived because they could do something the erectus couldn't: reason, think ahead and anticipate their enemy's actions.

The erectus lived in the moment. While the sapiens used spears, which were effective hunting tools and weapons, both up close and from a distance, the erectus never got beyond hand axes. In other words, pieces of sharpened stone -- although, as a scientist demonstrated on a pig carcass, lethal pieces of sharpened stone.

Even if the erectus had had spears, their immobile shoulders and outward-turned palms (which the BBC's make-up budget didn't stretch to) meant the weapons would have been next to useless.

It's fascinating and a bit unsettling, actually, to think that if it hadn't been for certain subtle geographical and climatic factors, Homo erectus could well have emerged the evolutionary winner. We'd all look like Phil Mitchell from EastEnders.

Teeth were also a problem in the American remake of Shameless, which substitutes William H Macy for David Threlfall as Frank Gallagher, and transfers the action to Chicago. They were too white, too even. The Gallaghers' house looked too big as well, although I suppose the average American home tends to be larger than ours.

I gave up watching Shameless years ago but I remember enough about the early days to know that this, bar a few necessary linguistic changes, is virtually a carbon copy. It's extremely well made and full of fine actors, even if Macy, brilliant as he is, seems a tad too clean and sober for Frank.

But unless it finds an identity of its own, as the US version of The Office did, you have to wonder why, if American television executives were so enamoured of the original, a remake was necessary.

And why, if you love the original, you'd want to watch this.

Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth ***

Shameless USA **

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