Animation and live action make “Doctor Who: Shada” a better story than the original plot would suggest

Pennant Roberts, “Doctor Who: Shada” (2017)

Not often do particular adventures in the long-running “Doctor Who” television series which first ran from 1963 to 1988 and was then resurrected in the early 2000s achieve mythic status of their own through an unusual set of events but the story of “Shada”, originally scripted by the legendary Douglas Adams (he of “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), is almost as famous as its creator: the 6-episode adventure had to be abandoned after several hours of filming due to industrial action at the BBC in 1978. Over the years the story was reworked in several formats including two audio plays, an animation (or two) and a novelisation. Finally in 2017 the BBC completed the adventure by combining the live-action segments with animation of the missing segments, based on the original script, and using special-effects technology that was available to the original TV crew filming “Shada”.

What the BBC ends up with is a story true to the quirky if low-brow charm of the original TV series, and possessed of all the wackiness one expects of a story penned by Douglas Adams: the central if hilarious conceit of the story is that a lovable if dotty and absent-minded English professor of physics, pottering about in his office and library at Cambridge University, is in fact a hardened intergalactic arch-criminal on the run from an outer-space gulag. But such is the mysterious Professor Chronotis (Dennis Carey), whose name tells viewers that the professor maybe outside the dimension of time as we know cheerfully serving a cup of tea to postgraduate physics student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) who drops by to borrow some books for a project. One of the books Parsons takes is a strange book written in mysterious script which Parsons discovers is not made of materials available on Earth; indeed its molecular structure is completely alien to Earthlings and the age of the book suggests that it only exists when time is running backwards!

While Parsons dashes off with the book, in another dimension a scheming megalomaniac villain called Skagra (Christopher Neame) travelling in a spaceship steals the minds of his fellow voyagers in a white sphere and goes to Earth to find Chronotis’ book – the very book Parsons has taken – whose script, once deciphered, gives instructions to travel to Shada, the prison planet created by an advanced alien species called the Time Lords to house their worst criminals; there, Skagra hopes to find and release a prisoner called Salyavin who has the unique ability to project his mind into those of others and rearrange their jumbled thoughts and direct them to more other pursuits of his making. Ultimately Skagra hopes to hoover up a stack of the most advanced minds of the universe with his little crystal ball and with Salyavin’s abilities on his side (or maybe in the sphere) use those minds to rearrange the universe’s affairs to his liking.

Unfortunately as with all such schemes, Skagra’s plans for shuffling the mental deckchairs around are threatened by the intrusion of the Doctor (Tom Baker), the time-travelling Time Lord, his Time Lady friend Romana (Lalla Ward) and their cyber-pooch K9. When the Doctor, Romana and K9 find and team up with Chris Parsons and his female physics tutor pal Clare (Victoria Burgoyne) to find the mystery book and return it to Gallifrey’s Panopticon archives (centuries after Chronotis had stolen it), Skagra has already made off with the item and the adventure settles down to a drawn-out chase that zig-zags from one end of the universe to another, involves Romana being kidnapped by Skagra (but not being tied to train tracks), has Romana and Clare trying desperately to link Chronotis’ stolen TARDIS machine to the Doctor’s TARDIS so the Doctor can traverse the link while the machines are whirling around in the time-space continuum, and (of course) features fearsome hulking monsters of molten lava. The story also includes a few head-scratching anomalies that don’t quite make sense – how could Skagra and his mind-sucking ball not discover Chronotis’ true identity after clearing out his head? – but sssh, we mustn’t let such errors in logic get in the way of a ramshackle adventure oozing plenty of slapstick and occasional wit along with a metal dog, a dumb computer driving Skagra’s ship and part of Cambridge University going missing for a day or two.

The animation style pays respect to the famous shoe-string budget of the original live-action TV show by being minimalist to the point of parsimony in the way characters move and speak. Effects are used if they were already known at the time of the original 1979 filming for “Shada”. The plot places a huge amount of emphasis on dialogue and clever editing techniques over action and viewers need to follow the dialogue quite closely to catch the jokes and in-jokes, and the Doctor’s crazy conversation about how dead men cannot threaten live people with the computer on Skagra’s jet that all but fries the machine’s circuit-boards.

Overall, the acting is adequate for the job when all that the job requires is chasing an evil master-mind from one end of the cosmos to the other in giant spaceships or pint-sized TARDIS machines. Carey’s professor is reduced to making endless cups of tea and Romana is often forced to play a damsel-in-distress role and spends huge amounts of time standing about in Skagra’s spaceship listening to his speeches about how he’ll run the universe more efficiently. Chris and Clare have even less to do than Romana does apart from getting themselves into trouble.

While silly eccentricity is to be expected in a script by Douglas Adams and with an actor like Tom Baker, the underlying theme of “Shada” is very serious: how do societies that pride themselves on their humanity towards less fortunate others deal with individuals who have committed dangerous crimes harmful to individuals and communities and who in many countries would have been subjected to capital punishment. Is it ethical for the Time Lords to freeze their most notorious criminals, and the criminals of other planets, and put them in cold storage on a barren prison planet and then pretend that such people never existed? Is there not a better way to treat criminals, even the most brutalised and hardened ones, in a decent way while still keeping them away from the public as much for their own sake as for the public’s sake? What exactly has Salyavin done that warranted deep-freezing him on Shada in the first place and was the punishment justified? (And how did he manage to escape?) Unfortunately the treatment of this issue is beyond Adams’ ability to work with and so the theme is very undeveloped. Far too much racing after Skagra and the stolen book dominates the story’s running time and at times certain scenes or characters can remind viewers of similar scenes and characters from previous Doctor Who adventures.

For all that, “Shada” is a decent enough story that actually works better than the plot would suggest as a result of combining live action and animation.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness): too much slapstick and not enough depth may ruin the show

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness)” (2017)

Once again gatecrashing the most unlikely places – like right in the middle of a steaming sauna session – comes Adam Conover in his latest crusade to dispel popular misconceptions about everyday issues. Here he tackles health fads such as detoxification methods and colonic irrigation, the truth about monosodium glutamate, and the power of the placebo effect on human health. His latest victim is cute blonde bunny Julia who has to write a magazine article investigating these and other trendy health crazes. Not surprisingly Adam demolishes the whole detoxification trend by demonstrating that many techniques and methods that claim to draw “toxins” out of the body through the skin only draw out perspiration or dirt already on the skin’s surface. Colonic irrigation in particular gets quite a bucketing from a guest gastroenterologist who warns that the technique can actually be harmful to the gut. Adam concludes this segment by showing that the body already gets rid of unwanted substances through the lungs, liver (and into the colon) and kidneys.

Next, Adam explains the history of the discovery of monosodium glutamate and how one letter written by a doctor to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 set off a train of events and hysteria that all but damned MSG as a suspect ingredient that caused headaches. Julia protests that she does get headaches from eating Chinese food (which often has added MSG for taste) – this is more likely due to the food having been cooked with too much salt and oil making it heavy and greasy. Unfortunately any physical reactions will be attributed to MSG which may or may not be present: this phenomenon (of attributing an effect to a wrong cause when there is only a correlation between consuming food with MSG and suffering headaches afterwards) is known as confirmation bias. Adam states that MSG is a naturally occurring substance found in many foods like tomatoes and that the body itself makes it.

The rest of the episode is taken up with an explanation of the placebo effect and how it can affect results of medical experiments as well as people’s overall health.

Each topic tackled in this episode is worthy of a deeper and longer investigation and the segment about MSG could be extended into an inquiry into how all too often a mildly positive correlation between two items or events is mistaken for cause-and-effect. Indeed the whole narrative of how MSG was demonised on the basis of one report, how that demonisation birthed an industry profiting from people’s fears, and what the unproved connection with Chinese restaurant food implies about the news media’s agenda in stoking racial prejudice (especially prejudice towards a country regarded with suspicion by the US government, as was the case with China back in the 1960s when the MSG demonisation began), is worthy documentary material in its own right as an illustration of the role Western media plays in creating and fomenting propaganda.

As in other episodes of “Adam Ruins Everything”, the companion chosen for Adam is too thick-headed to be plausible. The show’s format and its slapstick comedy presentation are becoming more annoying and trite than funny and make the show ripe for parody. This would be a sad state of affairs as much of the information the show presents is worthwhile and can rarely be found on other, more serious television programs.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories): no, conspiracy theories are not entirely ruined – they’re just not entirely explained well

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories)” (2017)

An enjoyable if not very substantial episode in this educational comedy series, “Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories” manages to ruin just one major conspiracy theory – that the lunar landings made by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 were actually filmed in a Hollywood studio – and to explain how and why conspiracy theories arise and how they are not as harmless as many might believe. Adam (Adam Conover) is spending time with new gal pal Melinda and all seems to be well until he spots literature on the Apollo 11 moon landings being a hoax strewn over her desk. He desperately explains to Melinda that Armstrong and company did indeed land on the moon and that the studio technologies needed to fake a moon landing and take photographs of the landing were actually far beyond the budgets of Hollywood studios in 1969. Next up, he demonstrates how belief in conspiracy theories can harm people with the example of the 1980s mass panic over daycare centres being hot-beds of child sexual abuse and Satanic indoctrination of children. Finally Adam explains why people are so ready to believe in conspiracy theories: our brains are wired to see patterns and causality in randomness, and this leads among other things to cognitive biases and selective thinking that, with repetition and reinforcement, can solidify into false beliefs that are hard to dislodge.

To be honest, the first part of the episode, focusing on the moon landings, was very rushed and concentrated almost entirely on photographs of the astronauts which many people have claimed are proof that the landings were faked by Hollywood. This part of the episode perhaps deserves an hour-long episode to itself, to show that many hundreds, even thousands of people were involved in designing, constructing and launching the Apollo 11 craft that reached the moon. Neil Armstrong’s historic feat was the culmination of a space exploration program conceived and planned by politicians, bureaucrats and scientists in the US to send spacecraft and then astronauts into space and ultimately to land on and explore the moon and possibly Mars. This was done as much for ideological purposes (to compete with the Soviet Union to demonstrate the superiority of the capitalist system over Communism and socialism to the US public) as it was to advance human knowledge. The episode could have said something about (and paid tribute to) the people who made the moon landing possible.

The second part of the episode (about the Satanic indoctrination of preschool-age children by their teachers) verged on crassness as Adam and company teetered on a fine line of balance between slapstick and exploring a real issue that tragically ruined the careers of several teachers and which could have also traumatised the children in their care. Particularly disturbing was the revelation that police grilled young children with leading questions until they gave the interrogators the answers that the police wanted.

Finally the explanation as to how and why conspiracy theories arise and persist was just too pat for this viewer and fails to consider the cultural context in which they arise. The belief that the Apollo 11 moon landing never took place developed at a time when the US became embroiled in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement calling for an end to racial discrimination against black and other non-white Americans was in full bloom. Americans were shocked at the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy in 1968, a few years after Kennedy’s older brother, President John F Kennedy, was shot dead in 1963. Already conspiracy theories about the Kennedy brothers’ deaths abounded and details in those theories were sufficient and plausible enough – and details in the official account of JFK’s assassination were odd enough – that many people refused to believe that one man acting alone off his own bat could have killed JFK. The fact that by the late 1960s, people no longer trusted the US government to tell the truth about many things primed a population to accept conspiracy theories that were based on real events and facts, and which made plausible assumptions about the nature of the US government and its agencies, even if the theories themselves were wrong. And it must be said that some popular “conspiracy theories” about the activities of the CIA, such as Operation Mockingbird (to influence and shape news media), eventually turned out to be correct.

As Conover acknowledges, the panic over Satanic brainwashing of small children occurred at a time when women were entering the workforce in large numbers (whether out of choice of necessity), leading to an increasing demand for daycare centres to care for children. The mass hysteria that developed was in its own way a protest against the potential break-up of what was seen to be the “traditional” nuclear family (in which the husband is sole breadwinner and the wife stays at home to care for their children) as exemplified by wives and mothers going to work and having careers. This example shows how conspiracy theories function to reassure an anxious public, attempt to preserve stability and protest change imposed from above.

While the series “Adam Ruins Everything” is very entertaining and informative, its half-hour format is very restricting and doesn’t encourage a more detailed and nuanced investigation of the topics it covers.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 11: Adam Ruins the Economy): commendable attempt to explain economic and market concepts and measures to the general public

“Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 11: Adam Ruins the Economy)” (2017)

Explaining economic concepts and measurements of how well economies are performing to the general public in the space of 20 minutes is a tall order so this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” deserves praise for trying. Firstly host Adam Conover explains why US taxpayers are forced to fill in their income tax returns in the most time-consuming and agonising ways possible when the US government already knows to a large extent how much most taxpayers are earning and how much tax they are paying (or should be paying) thanks to information sent to the Internal Revenue Service by employers and banking institutions, and to pay-as-you-earn withholding taxes. Conover says the US could adopt a return-free tax filing system that would enable US taxpayers to file income tax returns in a few minutes and send them off but due to lobbying by companies that work out and prepare tax returns for their customers (that is, US taxpayers), Congress ends up rejecting legislation proposing such a system or similar.

Conover then takes his new pal, the recently laid-off factory worker Hank (Marlon Young), on a trip where he explains to the increasingly astonished ex-worker why economic and stock market performance measures such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and the Dow Jones Industrial Average are not really accurate guides as to how well the economy or the stock market is performing. GDP only really tells us the market value of the total goods and services produced by an economy in a given period and actually says nothing about the well-being of most people in that economy; a far better measure of people’s well-being is GDP per capita by purchasing power parity (which controls for differences in the cost of living and, when comparing living standards of various countries, in the exchange rates of their currencies). The Dow Jones measures how the stock prices of the 30 largest public owned companies have traded in a given period; in that respect, the index is not an accurate measure of how healthy the US economy is, especially if some of the 30 companies have heavily traded (and thus highly priced) stocks which then influence the index more than they should.

Conover also tackles the US government’s definition of unemployment and finds it doesn’t include unemployed people who have given up looking for work or people who might be underemployed (that is, they are working in jobs that are beneath their qualifications and experience levels, or in part-time jobs when they would prefer to be working full-time). Finally he explains to Hank why he is not likely to find another manufacturing job that is the same as the last job he had or his father had: for one thing, American manufacturing industry experienced a Golden Age from 1945 to the early 1970s, supplying 50% of the world’s manufactured products, due to everyone else around the planet recovering from the ravages of World War II; and secondly, China – the world’s pre-eminent manufacturing economy – enjoys advantages (such as being located on the Eurasian heartland that puts the country at the centre of a supply chain network) that the US can’t gain or create. China also invests far more in educating and training workers than the US does.

While much of what the episode has to say can be contentious – particularly in the segment on how the US has lost out to China in manufacturing and the effect of automation on the demand for workers in manufacturing – it deserves credit for trying to explain clearly in a matter of minutes some complicated and controversial issues. Unfortunately the last couple of minutes in the episode rush by in a patch-up job about retraining schemes to cheer up Hank and those viewers who identify with him.

Much more could have been said on how the US lost out as the world’s major manufacturing nation – spending money on wars and military toys when the US could have spent the same amounts on basic education and on colleges aimed at retraining the unemployed and upgrading their skills goes unremarked – and at times the episode comes perilously close to China-bashing. Nothing is said about how the Chinese provided a low-cost source of labour in the first place and the historical circumstances before 1978 in China that made the country such an attractive place for Western firms to offshore their manufacturing. Anyone want to know about the devastating effect the Cultural Revolution had on China from 1965 to the mid-1970s?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 8: Emily Ruins Adam): featuring a good demolition job on IQ tests

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 8: Emily Ruins Adam)” (2017)

At long last, for those who always wanted to get their back on comedian Adam Conover for gatecrashing everyone’s parties to tell people that everything they thought they knew was right about everyday facts is actually wrong … here comes an episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” in which one of Adam’s past companions Emily sets about demolishing IQ tests and a few investigations from previous episodes that the TV show either got wrong or didn’t make clear to viewers. The segment on IQ testing and how IQ tests have been abused by US federal government agencies in often sinister ways – for example, to select people judged mentally defective or racially inferior for sterilisation as part of a wider but hidden eugenics program – is the most interesting part of the episode. The segments that follow are less informative and more slapstick as Emily and Adam overdo their comedy routine, particularly in the boxing ring segment where Emily tells Adam that simply telling people that what they believe is right is actually wrong isn’t enough to change their minds … what also should be done is to replace the incorrect narrative with a narrative that is as close to the truth as possible.

Even so, the episode as a whole is worthwhile mainly to show that even a television show with the resources to hire the best experts and to do thorough research doesn’t always get its facts right, or needs to do more work to convince or persuade viewers that its viewpoint is more valid than others. It’s a reminder that we should be humble about what we know or think we know, and there are going to be times when we ourselves need to review our own narratives about how the world works or what makes it go round.

The segment on IQ tests is very informative though perhaps it does not go deeply enough to encompass a whole sordid history of how the US government over past decades targeted racial minorities and immigrants and shunted them into the lowest socio-economic layers by subjecting them to biased intelligence testing, or subjected them to unethical medical experiments and sterilisation programs. That awaits a much fuller treatment by a television program with even more resources and access to experts and historians.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School): throwing Christopher Columbus and King Tut under the Magic School Bus

Amy Winfrey, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School)” (2017)

In this completely animated episode, Adam Conover joins a teacher, her students and the Magic School Bus to dispel popular misconceptions about Christopher Columbus and the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen and to demonstrate that grammar rules are for the most part irrelevant and serving mainly as guides to facilitate communication between and across sub-cultures. Aimed at a teenage audience, the episode is streamlined into treating just three topics, one after the other, and compared to other “Adam Ruins Everything” episodes isn’t quite so hyperactive.

In the first part of the episode, Christopher Columbus is revealed as a far from benevolent character who “discovered” America – indeed he never even went near the mainland United States but landed instead on the territory of what’s now the Dominican Republic. There, believing he had reached India, he named the native Taino people Indians. Even then, Columbus didn’t show much respect for his hosts but rather, over several trips between the Caribbean and Spain, proceeded to rob the Taino of their lands and enslave them. The indigenous population dropped in numbers alarmingly and eventually their Spanish colonial masters had to rely on the African slave trade for labourers to do their dirty work. The present-day adulation of Columbus stems from a deliberate public relations campaign cooked up in the late 19th century / early 20th century at a time when Italian immigration into the US was high; being of Italian descent himself, Columbus was adopted by American federal and state governments as a representative of Italian-American potential and to ease tensions between the immigrants and native-born Anglo-Americans.

The pharaoh Tutankhamen is shown to be significant mainly because his tomb, hidden in the Valley of Kings rather than in a lone-standing pyramid, was overlooked by grave robbers over hundreds of centuries; thus in 1922 when a British expedition came across his tomb, it was intact and filled with thousands of valuable treasures. The pharaoh in real life didn’t really have a chance to enjoy all that wealth: ascending to the throne as a 9-year-old boy, he had to take advice from adult viziers and the high priests of the ancient Egyptian religion. His reign was very short as well – he died at the age of 19 years. No wonder that compared to other pharaohs, Tutankhamen’s life was so unremarkable.

The last sliver of this episode demolishes the notion that grammar rules play an important role in safeguarding the English language from improper use and argues that English is a continually changing and complex language. Grammar rules are shown to be illogical and inconsistent – we say “myself”, “yourself”, “ourselves”, so why not “hisself” and “theirselves”? All that grammar rules do is ease communication and interaction among communities that may speak and use English in different ways and who need common ground in using English when their members meet and interact.

For many viewers, this episode will be more enjoyable than others where live action Adam is in danger of parodying himself. The pace is more leisurely and less hyperactive, and the animation is very well done with a homely look. I wish there were more such animated episodes of this series.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College): how financially naive young adults end up in the grip of neoliberal economic ideology

Paul Briganti, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College)” (2017)

Aiming squarely at its target audience of US high school students and undergrads, this episode is nevertheless of interest to foreigners who coasted through undergraduate university and college courtesy of government-funded grants or scholarships, or even enjoyed free tuition, and might be mystified as to how and why Americans these days land themselves in life-long debt because of … student loans! Adam Conover takes prospective college student Cole (Lukas Gage) and the audience through what almost amounts to a labyrinth of why going to college these days is so necessary – because most jobs in the future will demand a college degree – yet how going to college can become an unnecessary financial millstone around young people’s necks.

Initially Cole thinks he can be like Bill Gates and become a drop-out tech billionaire. Not so fast, Adam points out – most people who have only a high school diploma will eventually end up, at every stage of their career, earning less than someone with a college degree. Quickly convinced by Adam’s argument, Cole decides to read the US News & World Report’s college rankings guide on what college to choose – only for Adam to explain how the guide is manipulated by college administrators and ultimately can’t advise on the best colleges to attend with respect to the quality of education offered. Moving into a noisy student party, Adam and Cole shout their way through a quick history of lending to college students: initially government funded and regulated, the institution known as Sallie Mae was privatised in the 1990s and almost immediately began to exploit naive 18-year-olds for profit in much the same way that banks began pushing subprime mortgages onto people with suspect credit histories who could not pay off their housing loans.

In spite of the happy atmosphere and Cole’s kooky, gullible nature, the episode does deliver a very grim message: to get ahead in life, people need college degrees but may risk acquiring a huge debt that only could take a life-time to pay off but which could also affect their eligibility for future social welfare, not to mention limiting their choices as to work, having shelter and even planning a family. Happily Adam suggests to Cole that he should see a financial advisor about the kind of loan that would suit him and that community college or a publicly funded college may be a better option than going to an expensive Ivy League university.

The action seems a lot more histrionic and the whackiness has a forced quality about it due to over-acting on Conover and Gage’s part. Oddly there’s none of the animation that enlivens other episodes in the “Adam Ruins Everything” series. As with other episodes I’ve seen of this series, there are no really great revelations that most members of the public, particularly college students and their families, wouldn’t already be familiar with. Still this is a very entertaining show that moves briskly and which ends on an upbeat note.

Ultimately though the show can only go so far as to demonstrate that privatising institutions that offer student loans can open the door to predatory profiteering on financially naive people, and cannot draw parallels between the nation-wide student loan manipulation rort and similar bubbles such as the subprime mortgage bubble that killed off Lehmann Brothers in 2008 and ushered in the Great Recession. Once again, neoliberal capitalism rears its ugly head to prey on the vulnerable. Is there an alternative? “Adam Ruins Everything” unfortunately cannot offer one: for one thing, suggesting that university tuition should be free might not go down well with a TV-viewing public brainwashed to believe that a social welfare state is too, er … socialist.

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art): the hermetic world of fine art is dashed to pieces by loudmouth comic

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art)” (2017)

In this episode, Adam swipes the world of fine art, art galleries and art auctions by demonstrating that what is currently considered great art wasn’t necessarily so at the time it was made, and that the current fine art market in which certain artworks worth millions can exchange ownership is nothing more than a tax scam by which wealthy people can gain tax concessions by gifting or donating paintings. The episode gets off to a grand start by examining the worth ofLeonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting and how it originally became ubiquitous: someone stole the painting from the Louvre in 1911 as at the time the painting was considered a minor work and therefore didn’t merit around-the-clock guard. The publicity the painting gained after its theft and later (two years later in fact) return was enough to cement it in the public mind and its status rose accordingly.

With art student Persephone (Celesta de Astis) as his Frida Kahlo clone companion, Adam takes a grand tour of history and shows Persephone (and viewers) that originality in art is over-rated and what really matters is how artists adapt familiar themes, ideas and other people’s work and mould them into something different. He reveals that famous Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo began his career copying ancient Greek and Roman statues and was often able to pass his copies off as the real things. Of course, everyone should know that famous English playwright William Shakespeare took his subject matter for nearly all his plays from other people’s literary works.

The rest of the episode is taken up by Adam’s shredding of the art market world and how the prices of paintings can be manipulated by insiders currying favour with a small clique of critics and buyers to exclude people wanting to join the clique. The result is that artists themselves end up as pawns of the art market and their careers as artists can be made or broken on the whims of people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing as the cliche goes. At this point Persephone despairs, her dreams of becoming a great artist having been dashed into smithereens, and considers going to business school; but Adam tells her she can still create great art if it comes from the heart and represents what she feels as a human being.

Most of what Conover covers about the hermetic world of the art market will be no big surprise for those who know something of its manipulative creepiness but will certainly be eye-opening for Conover’s target youth audience. Even the revelation that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism during the 1950s by sponsoring experimental art shows and gatherings (no matter how much Western publics actually preferred representational art to abstract art) as a way of combating the Soviet Union and its rival socialist realism movement in an artistic Cold War will be familiar to many people. Indeed, there’s not much in this episode that hasn’t been said before except perhaps the revelation about how the world’s most famous portrait actually became famous. What makes this latest report from “Adam Ruins Everything” notable is its colourful use of animation and live action to put its points across and Adam Conover’s own mouthy and comic encyclopaedic style topped with an amazing surf-wave haircut and a loud pink suit.

Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital): challenging beliefs and misconceptions about hospitals and medical treatments

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital)” (2017)

Hosted by eponymous comedian and writer Adam Conover, “Adam Ruins Everything” is a comedy / education TV series that aims to challenge commonly held beliefs and misconceptions about many aspects of everyday life, in particular the everyday goods and services that people take for granted. In this episode, Adam visits Rachel (Melissa Tang) who has arrived in a hospital to get treatment for a head cold and perhaps get her mammogram done. In a relentlessly cheery fashion, Adam helpfully informs Rachel (and the show’s intended US target audience) how and why inflated hospital costs have led to medical care being out of reach for the majority of Americans, with the poor being hit the hardest of course, why antibiotics are not as effective as they used to be and may in fact be worthless, and that mammograms have been oversold to women fearful about their health with consequences that may actually be as harmful (if not more harmful) than breast cancer itself.

Potentially the most interesting part of the episode is the chat about ascending hospital costs and how hospitals determine the cost of medical (including surgical) procedures to patients. Most US hospitals refer to chargemasters (often their own) which are lists of medical items billable to patients or their health insurance funds. The prices of items are usually inflated way beyond what their actual cost so that hospitals can offer “discounts” to patients who belong to certain health funds. In addition, wealthy patients or insured patients can bargain down the cost of an item with hospital administration staff while the poor or uninsured patients have to pay full prices. Disturbingly, in most US states (apart from Maryland) hospitals can set their own chargemasters and there is often no regulatory authority that would oversee chargemasters and force hospitals and other medical treatment centres to make these publicly available so that people can shop around and make price comparisons. Unfortunately the swift pace of the episode means that the issue of escalating hospital costs can lose viewers if they happen to look away for a few seconds, and the treatment of the issue looks a little superficial. I’m sure also most viewers would have wanted to know how this state of affairs came about and who was / were responsible for this shambles.

The issue of declining antibiotic effectiveness is crisply well done with animation demonstrating how bacteria can become resistant over time to antibiotics. Once again though, there’s not much on how people themselves can ensure antibiotics are not abused (by feeding them to farm animals whose meat ends up in butcher shops and delicatessans) at a personal level such as washing one’s hands thoroughly and not overusing anti-bacterial soaps and handwash, or at a community level by protesting the use of antibiotics meant for humans in commercial agriculture.

Finally the question of how effective mammograms really are in detecting breast cancer in women before they notice symptoms comes in with an interview with Dr Joann Elmore who explains that there’s not much statistical difference between the number of women who discover they have breast cancer through mammograms and the number who find their breast cancer without the help of mammograms. She also explains that breast cancer cells may behave very differently, some being more aggressive than others. There is the possibility that some women may be diagnosed with breast cancer via mammogram who do not actually have the disease or have a slow-growing cancer, and can end up subjected to major medical procedures that are completely unnecessary and which could jeopardise patients’ long-term health.

The information is delivered in a fun way with slapstick and serious medical advice given equal time. With his surf-wave haircut, guileless manner and a mouth that never stops moving, Adam ploughs through three quite meaty medical issues with a raging and sneezing Rachel in tow. I’d have liked the episode to be a bit longer – another 15 minutes please? – with more information on how the US has ended up spending more on per capita healthcare costs than any other First World country. Yet Americans seem no healthier than other First World nations and could possibly be some of the least healthy people on Earth. The connection between excessive per capital healthcare costs and American’s decreasing well-being certainly merits attention.