OK, so it's an audacious idea, and in the spirit of pioneering telly, and whatever other justification you can muster in your gesture towards even-handedness. But something about 'Space Cadets', the new Channel 4 show which began with much fanfare on Wednesday, just isn't right. The something being - well, more or less everything.
The concept is simple, and must have sounded pretty sexy at the pitch stage: select a bunch of wide-eyed members of the public, and fool them into thinking they're going into space. The actual execution of this feat is rather more convoluted, but the intricate gag set-up is part of the show itself. An old air base in Ipswich is painstakingly converted to look like a Russian space centre; a shuttle simulator is set up in a hangar, which is itself turned into a space simulator with eye-fooling planetary imagery. Smart televisual skullduggery, but entirely sinister. From the start of the first instalment it was evident that this was conceived as a shot of pure schadenfreude to the audience bloodstream; you are going to watch idiots being spectacularly deceived, and it will amuse your arse off. The only significant difference between this and 'Beadle's About' is budget. No, actually, the significant difference is that discovering your car hasn't really been crushed isn't that likely to bring on a complete mental breakdown, whereas discovering that you are not in space when you believed with your entire being that you were, is.
Inevitably, the contestants are firmly in the 'Big Brother' mould. They all applied to an opaque magazine ad which said something along the lines of 'Are you an attention-seeking excruciate who would describe themselves as "a bit mad, me" and have applied to at least five other shifty adverts couched in similar terms in the desperate hope of getting your utterly unremarkable self on telly, you poor sap?'. So at least these aren't people whose childhood dream was to follow in the bouncy footsteps of Neil Armstrong; they're members of that strange new strain of the species who, like vampires fleeing the dawn light, fear they may crumble into dust if they remain in obscurity.
The applicants were then tested for 'suggestibility', which is a nice way of saying they were tested to see if they were so gullible that they would give their life savings to a man in the street who offered them five magic beans. The contestants fell over themselves to identify faces and objects that weren't there in pictures of scattered dots, in a way that suggested not so much suggestibility as a psychotic eagerness to say something that would play well with The People At Home. 'It's... the tail of a dolphin, not a whole dolphin?' suggested one. 'It's... Elvis!' said another. 'It's... my mother being anally pleasured by my science teacher who is wearing a ball gag and a tutu,' announced another brightly before being led away in restraints. These jerry-built, barely-kosher psychological tests can reveal so much.
After a bit of outdoorsy character-building stuff, they're told that they'll be going to space. They squeal and high-five and - ha ha - don't suspect a dicky-bird. Like any reality show contestants, they seem interchangeable and quietly obnoxious. To the outraged viewer who finds the whole concept shocking in its deviousness and exploitation, they're mollifying. These people haven't been selected just for their suggestibility, but their imperviousness. They're emotionally invested not in the idea of going to space, but to the living rooms of the nation. Their motivations are shallow; they have the kind of unquestioning confidence and personal denseness that makes them seem solid, near-indestructible. They may be gullible, but fragile they ain't. They are more likely to laugh at the extraordinary elaborateness of the hoax than to get upset that they've been had, and they'll probably be happier to have been the focus of such an unprecedented telly happening than they would have been to actually orbit the Earth. To be on television now is the zenith of human experience. Who needs to see entire continents and oceans and gain an awesome new perspective on mankind's fragile habitat? We got on the *telly.* They're not the sort of people you readily sympathise with, as such - if the smug swine slid in a puddle of beer in the pub, you'd snigger. So you almost conclude that it's not so bad. That plump little red devil on your shoulder prods you with his fork and whispers 'ah, go on, it'll be *funny* to watch their bland faces crumple in disbelief'.
But then you realise that regardless of the outcome, the basic intent of 'Space Cadets' is a malign one, the probable harmlessness of which doesn't excuse it. In essence it's about the ridicule of people - and however awful and vacuous they are, they're still people - for believing in something that they have been *engineered* to believe; and then it's about lapping up their hurt or bewilderment or fury or hysteria when the hoax is revealed. The programme is particularly self-satisfied in its gigantic we-know-something-you-don't-ness, and it seems to make no concession to the lurking possibility that it is fucking with people's heads in a pretty dangerous way. Belief is a powerful thing, and if you induce it to an absolute in someone and then whip it away; well, look what happened to Keanu Reeves. And he *knew*, presumably, that 'The Matrix' was a film in which actors did acting.
The risks are significant. It might be the kind of car-crash viewing that really is like an actual car crash - the reactions of the contestants might be as horrifyingly unwatchable as anything you can imagine, if they don't just laugh it off like they have breezeblocks for psyches (which would be pretty disturbing to observe in itself). We might actually be treated to watching a mental collapse on screen in the name of entertainment. At the very least, in the interests of pushing that envelope, Channel 4 are risking treading on the tootsies of the broadcasting code. Ofcom state pretty clearly that 'Where a person is invited to make a contribution to a programme... they should normally, at an appropriate stage be told the nature and purpose of the programme, what the programme is about and be given a clear explanation of why they were asked to contribute'. Oh, and 'broadcasters or programme makers should not normally obtain or seek... an agreement to contribute through misrepresentation or deception'. Hmm. Yes, it's great to be close to the bone, but to what end in this case? Succeeding in hoodwinking people of average intelligence with a powerful illusion that would fool people of above-average intelligence? Maybe it'll be useful to the army, or something. Whatever.
The chances are that 'Space Cadets' will just be a moderately damp squib, but if it's successful, clones will follow. In fact, someone will probably pitch something involving duping people into thinking they have a clone that is... thinking on our feet here... yes, trying to kill them. And they have to hide. In... the desert. Only it's not really the desert, but they'll believe it is due to - ah! - hypnotic suggestion! If they sign the forms, it's all cool. Really, though, just put your balls where your doodling-pad is, Channel 4, and show an execution. Stop