TV blog: How to be an astronaut

Benjie Goodhart / 10 December 2015

TV highlights, including Horizon Tim Peake Special: How to Be an Astronaut, The World’s Most Expensive Christmas, Luther and That's So Last Century.

Horizon Tim Peake Special: How to Be an Astronaut, Sunday 13th December, 8pm, BBC Two

Who do your kids or grandkids want to emulate? Wayne Rooney? Taylor Swift? Some simpering, banal YouTube video blogger with an income of roughly the GDP of Luxembourg?

Make them watch this programme. Tear them away from their iPhones, their touch-screen keys to heaven, strap them down, prop their eyelids open with matchsticks and force them to watch this hour-long documentary.

Because I defy anyone not to want to be like British astronaut and all round superstar Tim Peake by the end of this. Hell, I want to be like Tim Peake, and I’m utterly baffled by all forms of even the most basic science, and scared of heights, enclosed spaces, change, travelling and being too far from a telly.

Tim has spent the last six years training to be an astronaut. Three days after this programme transmits, he will sit on top of a large bomb that will hurl him from the sweet, oxygen-rich embrace of the earth’s atmosphere and deposit him in a tin can 220 miles above the earth, travelling at 17,500 mph. The BBC will cover both the take off and, around 7 hours later, his arrival at the International Space Station, where he will spend the next six months.

The programme is an absolutely riveting look at the last 18 months of Peake’s training. It turns out that being an astronaut isn’t all that easy (I can already feel my ambition starting to wane). You need to be super-fit. A mechanical engineering wizard. A skilled pilot. Exceptionally brave. Fluent in Russian (all the controls on the ISS are in Russian). Exceptionally psychologically robust. Conscientious and hard-working, and prone to self-denial. My skill set? I’m quite good at Scrabble.

Tim’s enthusiasm and upbeat nature is utterly unshakeable. In the months before his trip, two unmanned rockets heading up to the ISS explode. For most of us, that sets alarm bells ringing. Tim is just worried about his mission being delayed.

In amongst it all, we meet his fellow astronauts (the Russian cosmonaut straight from the book of clichés, an unsmiling man of few words and granite-features), and Tim’s charming family. And through it all there is the stunning archive footage, including shots of Earth from the ISS.  Most people would see that and admire the beauty of the planet, or reflect on the fragility of existence. I just kept thinking how far they are from a Nandos. I think perhaps I don’t have the Right Stuff. But I know a man who does. God speed, Tim.

Related: 10 things you probably didn't know about the space race 

Luther, Tuesday 15th December, 9pm, BBC One

This is the fourth series of Luther, the detective show starring Idris Elba as the eponymous copper. If you’ve not seen it before, allow me to give you all the salient information you need to know. Luther is the hardest man in the world. Um… I think that’s about it. There’s really not a lot more to say.

Not because Luther isn’t good – it’s actually rather tremendous – but just because, well, his hardness pretty much defines the show. In one episode, he had his hand nailed to a table, and his eyes narrowed slightly at the irksome tickle he felt.

Anyway, when we catch up with Luther, he’s living in a ramshackle seaside house, hiding away from the world. He lost a pal at the end of the last series. Got blown away by a shotgun. Luther’s upset not to have been there. Those pellets would have taken one look at him and legged it back up the barrel.

Pretty soon, though, he’s back on the job, striding around being hard and maverick and a bit more hard. Which is just as well – you’d want Luther in your corner, because there’s a profoundly chilling serial killer on the loose. This guy is out-and-out nuts. He makes Hannibal Lecter look like Felicity Kendall.

Which brings me to my next point: This is fairly gruesome stuff. If you’re not made of stern stuff, you might want to pop on Classic FM and have a Custard Cream instead. At one (of many) murder scenes, one cop asks “What did he do with the heart.” That’s never a good sign. And when the response is “He ate it,” you know you’re dealing with someone a little bit, um, eccentric.

It’s gripping stuff from the off, and it even boasts posh old Patrick Malahide as a cockney gangster – hurrah! But there are a couple of moments of such startling incompetence and implausible ineptitude from the police that there is an annoying sense of jarring absurdity at one point. Mind you, get beyond that and you’re in for a real treat – come and have a watch if you think you’re hard enough.

The World’s Most Expensive Christmas, Tuesday 15th December, 9pm, Channel 4

There is a phrase that has entered modern parlance. It is “jumping the shark”. It refers to the moment something goes irrevocably off the rails, and it comes from a scene in Happy Days, when fans finally realised that the show was doomed – when Fonzie jumped over a shark while waterskiing.

I tell you this because it strikes me that humanity has now jumped the shark. We are a species that has become strikingly insane. You only need to watch this extraordinary, hilarious and somewhat sickening one-off documentary to realise this. It follows some of the denizens of society’s upper echelons as they prepare for a Christmas of hideous consumption.

From cocktails costing £8,888 to Christmas baubles for £20,000-a-set, £30,000 gift boxes (that’s just the box, nothing in it) to a £650,000 tree-topper, this programme has more vulgarity in it than a rapper’s beachside mansion.

At times, it feels like an expertly-crafted spoof. There is an absolutely hilarious ‘Luxury Lifestyle Consultant’, a man who swans around, a colourful scarf artfully draped around his shoulders, pointing at hideously overpriced tat and declaring it “exquisite”. There’s a florist who has private customers who spend £10,000-a-week on flowers for their homes. He has a client for Christmas who is going to spend £250,000 on decorations and a tree – for a 36-hour visit to London. One year, he had clients who redecorated their house to match his Christmas arrangements. Still, we’ve all repainted the kitchen to match our dinner before, right? Right?

The nitwit lifestyle consultant and his acolytes then sit around deciding how to make Christmas even more special for moneyed idiots. They have the idea of sending round three wise men – they suggest employing Stephen Hawking, Stephen Fry and David Starkey. And they’re not even joking.

Ultimately, though, they decide that the real way to make someone’s Christmas dreams come true is to get them to shell out £650,000 for a grotesquely ostentatious diamond tree-topper. They have it made – whereupon our luxury lifestyle consultant gives his verdict.

A word to the wise – if a man in too-tight jeans, a jacket that brings to mind a colour-blind peacock, a huge belt buckle, and open shirt and more jewellery than Mr T, ever tells you something is exquisite, run. Run like hell in the opposite direction, and don’t slow down until you’re back in the real world.

Related: Find everything you need for the perfect Christmas in our Christmas tips and guides hub

That’s So Last Century, Tuesday 15th December, 10pm, Channel 4

Kids these days. Tsk! They have absolutely no clue how lucky they are. Being a kid has changed more in the last 40 years than at any time in human history. That’s not a fact or anything, I just made it up – but I can’t imagine it’s not true. I tend to be absolutely right 99.5% of the time, and mostly right the other 1.5%.

In my childhood, the only video games we had were Atari games, which only worked if you convinced yourself that wars really were fought by completely square, largely stationary tanks that fired square, slow-moving bombs at each other. Games today are so realistic, you can practically smell the cordite and experience the PTSD generated in the heat of battle.

Occasionally, we even had to do car journeys without touch screens displaying films or games. I once spent a summer driving across Europe with my parents and sisters. It almost destroyed us as a family.

This programme, the second in a three-part series, sees celebrities – and their offspring – revisit the toys and games of the latter part of the last century. It’s a salutary reminder of how utterly rubbish toys were back then.

Some of the weirder ones on display include Growing Up Skipper, a doll whose boobs grew as you spun her arm around; the insufferably frustrating Domino Rally, which caused me more tantrums than probably anything I have ever known; and Subutteo, the game that promised so very much, looked so special, and delivered so very, very little. Apart from arguments. Oh, the arguments we had. I swear I received more injuries playing two years of Subutteo than playing real football for 30 years.

But every now and again, something from the past really strikes a chord. For me, it was Astro Wars. How I loved that game. Even now, I can hear its hideously tinny music, and my mum screaming at me to turn the sound down. If it wasn’t for Astro Wars, I’d probably be a neurosurgeon by now. Hell, I’d probably be Tim Peake. A spaceship game robbed me of the chance to go up in a spaceship. There’s irony for you.

Frasier, Box Set

Last week, I revisited the joy that was Cheers, one of the greatest sitcoms ever made. This week, we embrace the wonder that was Frasier, without a doubt the finest spin-off show in the history of television. (Intriguingly, the first Cheers spin-off, The Tortellis, was an unmitigated disaster.)

Filmed on a set built on the site of the old Cheers set, Frasier, like its predecessor, gave us 11 seasons of brilliantly funny and yet deeply touching comedy.

The show centred around Frasier Crane, the Boston psychiatrist-cum-barfly, who has moved back to Seattle to start afresh with his own radio advice show. Forced to take in his dad (injured after being shot in his role as a policeman) and his dad’s beloved dog Eddie, Frasier hires an eccentric British physio to help out.

Frasier’s uptight brother Niles, also a psychiatrist, is unhappily married to the hellish Maris (who we never see onscreen, but who casts a very large shadow over poor, brow-beaten Niles) and falls profoundly in lust (and ultimately love) with Daphne. Completing the group is Roz, Frasier’s down-to-earth, streetwise and flirtatious radio producer.

Right from the word go, the show was a joy. From the brilliant celebrity cameos calling in to Frasier’s show, to the heavenly pomposity of Frasier and Niles, and the baffled reaction of their blue-collar father, this was laugh-out-loud funny. But it was also much more than that. This was a delicate and moving study of emotionally inarticulate men trying to express love for one another. It was a tale of loneliness and longing, where sad things can and did happen, even if things all worked out in the end.

It also featured some stunning performances. Kelsey Grammer was brilliant as the show’s central character, but even he was eclipsed by David Hyde Pierce, who invested the neurotic, camp and kindly Niles with such energy and sympathy that he stole almost every scene he was in. Apart from the ones with Moose, the dog who played Eddie. Because Moose was, for my money, simply the best animal actor in celluloid history. Watch him. I swear that dog had comic timing.

And so we come to the dreadful question – which was better – Cheers or Frasier. It feels like Sophie’s Choice, albeit with slightly less drastic consequences. In the end, though, maybe Frasier just sneaks it. Maybe. But, oh, how glorious they both were.

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