Including Me and My Penis and All Creatures Great And Small (insert own comment here, dear reader)
From outer space to planet earth, here are new shows for your small screens
What would it take for you to spend three years away from loved ones in order to create a slice of human history? And bearing in mind that you might never come back from that voyage alive? This is the central driving force behind the drama of Away, a ten-part series about a NASA mission to Mars, that often skirts alongside cliché and emotional button-pushing, but manages to save itself with strong performances and visual delights both up in space and down on Earth.
Hilary Swank heads the piece as commander Emma Green, who leaves her husband Matt (a fellow astronaut played by Josh Charles) and teenage daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman) behind to lead a multinational crew towards the motherlode of landing on Mars via a pitstop by the Moon. Inevitably, problems pile up on almost episodic basis (the key one being a distinct lack of water) while those at ground control do their utmost to offer guidance while having their own political issues.
Each crew member (played by Ato Essandoh, Mark Ivanir, Ray Panthaki and Vivian Wu) has an origins story to show how they too have made sacrifices, but the guilt, fear and anguish of Emma, Matt and Alexis take precedence. Away is occasionally an edge-of-the-seat ride, and often a heart-rending journey into humans and their capacity to sometimes succeed against the odds.
Netflix, Friday 4 September.
Planet Earth: A Celebration ★★★★☆
A narrative and visual treat, Planet Earth: A Celebration feels like the warm-up act to a much more vital project David Attenborough has on the go. At some point in the autumn, Netflix will be airing Life On Our Planet, in which everyone's favourite nonagenarian national treasure 'reveals the solutions to help save our planet from disaster'. For now, Planet Earth: A Celebration acts as a Now That's What I Call Natural History compilation from previous series, with added compositions and accompaniment from Hans Zimmer and the Mercury-winning Dave.
The much discussed sequence of an iguana somehow fleeing from a bunch of racer snakes is in there (good luck to all us ophidiophobes as the programme doesn't half enjoy lingering on that close escape) while on a far lighter note, the parade of flamingos doing their non social-distancing dance is a true delight (no wonder the collective term for these birds is a 'flamboyance').
This celebration offers its own message of hope to humanity: if these creatures can overcome extreme adversity to survive, then maybe us people can just brace ourselves for some more anxiety and inconvenience before getting to the other side. Or at least just don't complain about having to wear a face covering for a bit.
BBC One, Monday 31 August, 8pm.
Me and My Penis ★★★☆☆
After 2019's 100 Vaginas and this January's Bring Back The Bush, Channel 4 have decided it's time for male members to take centre stage. In Me and My Penis, photographer and 'sex activist' Ajamu directs his lens at a series of men who have braved societal taboos and their own shy tendencies to let the nation witness some manhoods in as tasteful a display as possible (one tabloid dubbed the late-evening programme as 'Erection Night'). Ajamu is well aware of the negative attitudes towards making art from a fellow's nether regions, given that the vice squad showed up to a gallery in 1994 to clamp down on one of his photographs.
Over the course of an hour, behind-the-hand sniggering and back-of-the-class chortling are order of the day as the words 'cock', 'dick' and 'willy' are chucked out left, right and centre. Memories of Onan's debut performance in their lives (often confused, occasionally anguished) are recalled largely with a nostalgic smirk. But it's not all light-hearted fare with some of the interviewees raising issues of child abuse, infertility, and warfare injuries that ended one man's sex life.
An impressively diverse range of individuals were assembled for this one-off documentary and almost every angle possible has been tackled in Me and My Penis. Perhaps most admirably, the temptation to fill the 50 minutes or so of airtime with one awful penis-based pun after another is largely avoided.
Channel 4, Monday 31 August, 10pm.
All Creatures Great And Small ★★★☆☆
If you were to pick a British TV series of the 1970s/80s to get the rebooted treatment, those gentle small-screen veterinarian tales of James Herriot might not have been many people's first choice. Then again, in these uncertain times and amid the fraught existential crises we're all feeling, the ye olde worlde life of a Glasgow-raised, Yorkshire Dales-based animal-healer could actually be a salve for the nation's soul.
Recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Nicholas Ralph (if ever they make a film of ex-Daily Show host Jon Stewart's life, this doppelganger is their man) makes his TV debut as Herriot, a 1930s fish out of water having left the Glasgow Vet College to work alongside grouchy genius Siegfried Farnon in the sleepy fictional village of Darrowby. A widower of four years, Farnon doesn't have his own troubles to seek, with an errant younger brother Tristan needing to be knocked foursquare into shape. Cue a series of adventures with local farmers, none of whom especially trust the Scottish newcomer or the posh ne'er-do-well sibling of the respected but continually really rather grumpy Siegfried.
Hands go deep into the large wounds of cows and horses in order to cure these elegant beasts (often followed by the reward of a beef sandwich) but asides from one or two icky moments, this could easily have been handed a pre-watershed slot on Five. Samuel West is spot on as the irritable Siegfried while Anna Madeley does a turn as the ever patient housekeeper Mrs Hall who herself has a sad past to keep buried through her northern stoicism. It seems unlikely that this return to the televised memoirs of James Herriot will spawn over a decade of episodes about a long-forgotten Blighty, but for now, its simple charms could act like a handkerchief of chloroform over our collective unease.
Five, Tuesday 1 September, 9pm.
Two Weeks To Live ★★☆☆☆
A lot of credit can go to a TV show that knows its place. A light drama such as All Creatures Great And Small fully recognises where it belongs and has no pretensions to do anything other than calmly rock its audience through an hour a week. Two Weeks To Live tries so hard to be whatever it is that it's trying to be and misfires at every step.
Maisie Williams stars as Kim, the daughter of a survivalist mother (Sian Clifford), who has decided to hunt down her father's killer (played with an archetypal Lahndan gangster relish by Sean Pertwee). Kim's main mission is complete in about half an episode having inadvertently hired two loser brothers to join her cause. Cue a series of adventures with local hoods featuring implausible dialogue and bloody action (there's one ludicrous and extended fight sequence that comes across like the Peter Griffin vs Chicken running gag in Family Guy) interrupted by wit that is metaphorically accompanied by the sound of many tumbleweeds rolling in their graves.
Like Daniel Radcliffe in Sky's Miracle Workers before her, it's clear that Maisie Williams' performing abilities don't quite stretch to possessing natural comedic talent; though given the lines she's asked to utter here it's unclear whether anyone would produce laughs from them. Sad to say, an episode or three of Two Weeks To Live might ultimately leave you pondering whether to end it all.
Sky One, Wednesday 2 September, 10pm. All episodes available on NOW TV, Wednesday 2 September.
Follow The List's Staying In is the New Going Out articles for more recommendations, alternative online events, press releases, refund policies, restaurant deliveries and further general information.