Screen Savors: Stargazing down under

A great new comedy pulls a quirky UK astronomer out of his annoying girlfriend's bosom and send him to the outback.

television 88 (photo credit: )
television 88
(photo credit: )
We can sympathize with Dr. Paul Hamilton. After all, we too were plucked out of a very civilized place and thrust down into the midst of a wild new land, where the natives have strange customs, like watching Eurovision, and wild beasts, like the guy who sings off-key with the tinny soundtrack on Ben-Yehuda, roam the land. Yes, it's easy to understand why Paul, a British astronomer, finds it hard to adjust when he's suddenly pulled from the warm bosom of his annoying girlfriend and homeland in the UK to a new life as part of a wacky astronomy research team in Xtra HOT's fun new Supernova, burning brightly Sunday nights at 00:30. There's no doubting Paul's zeal for the stars. After all, as the lecturer on gaseous components of stars tells the sexy Rachel during his interview, he got his first telescope at six and couldn't control his excitement. "I lived on coffee and cough syrup and some uppers I found in my mother's purse," he explains. For as much as he loves research, he longs to be in the field, at some far-flung observatory like the one Rachel's representing, away from his annoying, chatterbox girlfriend Ruth, who doesn't even stop nattering on when they're having sex, and is so addicted to ethnic jewelry, "the woman looks like she looted a small village." It's lines like that and the weird entourage Paul (Rob Brydon, known to Britons from The Keith Barret Show) encounters when he finally gets his wish and is whisked to the outskirts of Unagatta, population 307, that makes this UK/Australian/US co-production such a hoot. It's obvious someone behind this show's watched a lot of Northern Exposure, because Paul's mission Down Under has close parallels to Dr. Fleischman's assignment in Alaska: the culture shock, the encounters with women far different than any he's met before, the periodic longings for his old life are all brought in to play here as well. But it's the loony if somehow also down-to-earth space researchers Paul encounters that make the show work. Besides Rachel, who uses her fancy space communications gear to keep in contact with her boyfriend, the American astronaut currently in space ("What are you wearing?"), there's Prof. McQuade, the lusty manager of the research station whose aborigine boyfriend is a highly spiritual mechanic; Jude, a wunderkind researcher with a penchant for psychedelic mushrooms; Mike, another young stargazer who's not averse to using the high tech gear to tune in episodes of Dr. Who; and Max, a Captain Kirk-like figure who's a bit demented, but goes after snakes and other critters that sneak into the compound with the lust of Ahab going after the Great White Whale. Things start to go wrong almost from Paul's arrival. Walking past a microphone in the station, Paul can't resist, picks it up and says: "Houston, we have a problem." When Rachel's boyfriend answers angrily from space, Paul does a double take, then slides under the table to hide when she comes into the room, leaving him in a rather embarrassing position. When she discovers him, Paul - whose slightly bewildered expression and awkward way around women sometimes recalls Dutch in The Shield - assures her that "I had my eyes closed the entire time I was between your legs." A trip to town introduces Paul to the camels which walk the roads, and an attempted stroll outside the compound ends with him brought back by painted aborigines. The worst, however, is his encounter with a toad that leaves him with "the fever," whose symptoms include elephantiasis of the testicles, aren't too pleasant. When a slightly deranged Paul asks McQuade about his condition, she notes: "You're a bit warm, and your balls are like melons." "Big balls," smiles the out-of-it astronomer. It's not all crude humor, however. When the face of what Paul believes to be God turns up on their screens during a scan of the spheres, the ensuing theological debates were uproarious, as when Paul mused: "Do you think I want to be a Christian? They were the only kids my chess team could beat up at school." The whole episode was great, especially when the team discovered that He was actually a fuzzy image of... Dr. Who, caused by a loose wire in the screen. All this mayhem is played with tongue deeply in cheek, much gusto, and fun by the cast, and the creators have done some fine work here. While Supernova may not quite be TV heaven, it does rate a landing for some laughs.