In the Beginning

An artist's conception of a possible newfound planet.Photo: NASA/JPL-CALTECH

Toward the end of the fourth and final hour of Origins (Tuesday and Wednesday, September 28 and 29; 8 to 10 P.M.; Channel 13), a splendid Nova mini-series on where we came from, how we got from there to here, and whether we are likely to happen on intelligent company anywhere else in the universe, the screen fills with an eerie image. This is Hubble’s famous deep-space snapshot of the foaming matter, fiery gas, and surreal star-hatching known as the Pillars of Creation, a.k.a. the Eagle Nebula—although, to me, the ghost cluster looks less like an eagle than it does a seahorse or a dragon. Anyway, it’s gorgeous.

But I wonder if we find it gorgeous simply because we are part of the same processes, built out of the same ingredients, according to the same specifications laid out here by the eager scientists inspecting satellite photographs, computer models, spectographic readings, Mars probe data, fossil layers, ice caps, clam beds, meteor craters in Arizona, sulfuric-acid caves in southern Mexico, and zircon deposits in western Australia. Judging by the evidence they present, we would appear to be incidental by-products of a lack of antiseptic precautions on the part of the cosmos; dirt clumps around a molten core in the clenched-fist grip of gravity; dust bunnies and recycled mineral residue waiting around in the primal soup and lava flow for lightning bolts or asteroids. Microbes that turned into big-time, carbon-based, self-replicating molecules, we ask questions, fear death, and make up meaning (and beauty) as we go along.

Indeed, Homo saps took quite an evolutionary while to listen up. Earth, we’re advised, was lucky to have Jupiter to deflect solar winds hurtling comets that might otherwise have wrecked our crib. And if our career in conscious time is doomed and brief, shouldn’t we then cherish each and every nanosecond, a gift of grace before big sleep?

“We are incidental by-products of a lack of antiseptic precautions on the part of the universe.”

Origins inspires such dreamy questions. And it does so without the help of God or sci-fi. Our time isn’t wasted with op-ed opinions from Intelligent Designers posing narcissistic theories about how wonderfully complex we are, with no one to notice except our brilliant selves. And while we do see snippets of several sci-fi films in the “Where Are the Aliens?” hour, the point is to subvert these snippets with the biological facts of life. According to Nova, Starship Troopers’ giant insects couldn’t stand up on their own thin legs. Not even Sigourney Weaver could survive a parasitic reptile nesting in her chest until it decided to birth itself. If there is intelligence out there with a yen to chat and a facilitating technology—and there might be; SETI has only been listening, with its Drake equations and its Doppler effects, for 40 years— there is no reason to think it has two eyes and glossy lips, never mind Spielberg polliwogs and X-File fetuses.

For some notion of the chemistry of sentient life, stay tuned for the episode featuring bouillabaisse from Union Square Cafe chef Michael Romano—a visual metaphor whipped up as a favor for Origins host Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium. (Tyson, with his open collar, rolled-up sleeves, aw-shucks chuckle, and bandit’s mustache, seems affable enough to trust with your children. But I can’t help thinking that he’d smile less if he had forked over the ransom in fees I’ve paid to get into his museum! I remember the planetarium back when it was so cheap it didn’t charge you for the coat and bag you didn’t have to check.)

But I digress. Origins is a CSI devoted to the grandest of all mysteries. In “Earth Is Born,” we see our globe as liquid rock, healing waters, magnetic fields, and lucky tilt. In “How Life Began,” we watch primitive organisms teach themselves to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, a waste product that combines conveniently with the iron in seawater to make atmospheric waves. In “Where Are the Aliens?,” we visit Europa, the big moon with the icy secrets circling Jupiter. In “Back to the Beginning,” the Big Bang is heard billions of years after it started matter in motion, a microwave whisper with a splotchy pattern of hydrogen compost heaps. Even the observatories with their telescopes look in Origins surprisingly like mosques, a reminder perhaps that sky worship is the oldest religion.

After so much science on public television, Desperate Housewives (Sundays, starting October 3; 9 to 10 P.M.; ABC) is a trashy relief, the sort of soapy series we will sit down to winking an eye to say we’re hip, wiggling a finger to signify irony, but deep down below the belt regressive/prurient. About the secrets of married bondage, erotic servitude, and economic slavery in suburbia, we will be informed by Mary Alice (Brenda Strong), who has already shot herself dead before we meet her, having been poison-penned. She then introduces us to her women’s group: Teri Hatcher, quite nicely recovered from her Howie Long commercials; Felicity Huffman, who deserved another series after Sports Night; and Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria, and Nicolette Sheridan, from, in no particular order, Knots Landing, Melrose Place, and The Young and the Restless, asked here to be, in no particular order, an ex-model, an ex-CEO, a shameless hussy, an illustrator of children’s books, and a Stepford RoboSpouse. There are also husbands without a clue and a handsome new bachelor who says he’s a plumber but carries a gun. Executive producer Marc Cherry used to write for Golden Girls. I laughed a lot then, too.

Death in Holy Orders (Sundays, October 3 and 10; 9 to 10:30 P.M.; Channel 13) brings back Scotland Yard’s Adam Dalgliesh in another absorbing P. D. James mystery with as many mad monks as red herrings. But the biggest surprise is a brand-new Dalgliesh, Martin Shaw, most familiar to American viewers as the imperialist himself in the Cecil Rhodes mini-series. After we get used to his always looking elsewhere and thinking elsewhat, he triumphs in the dour part of a poet detective who hasn’t quite recovered from the death of his beloved. Returning to a theological college where he spent some time as a boy, arriving too late for several dead bodies, he will find affection if not God.

In the Beginning