'Charles Darwin': still another BBC winner

If there's any validity to the survival-of- the-fittest theory, Charles Darwin will outlast Milton Berle, Johnny Carson, and even Walter Cronkite as TV's foremost personality. "The Voyage of Charles Darwin" (PBS, Sunday and six succeeding Sundays, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is certainly the fittest of them all -- a profoundly stimulating mix of entertainment and information for which we must once again acknowledge gratitude to the BBC.

"Darwin" abounds in lush photography, scientific revelation, and religious controversy, but mostly in human insight. It traces the life of the man from his early formative years through his demise in 1882, recreating the famed five-year voyage of the Beagle across the Atlantic to Tierra del Fuego and the Galapagos, stopping with the evolving naturalist to make shore excursions, collect specimens, and study the local customs.

By the time Darwin publishes his "The Origin of Species" in 1859 we have learned a great deal about the world of Charles Darwin and the universe in which he dwelled. This seven-hour "Voyage of charles Darwin" is a voyage of discovery for viewers, too. Produced for the BBC by Christopher Ralling (also responsible for "The Fight Against Slavery" and "the Search for the Nile"), directed by Martyn Friend and written by Robert Reid, "Darwin" is closely based on Darwin's own letters, diaries, and journals, especially "The Voyage of the Beagle" and "The Autobiography of Charles Darwin." Host for the series is another famous voyager, Neil Armstrong, making his slightly hesitant small step into television.

First a bit of a quibble: the series starts off slowly, concentrating on young Darwin's indecisiveness as he vacillates about a career in medicine or theology and finally decides to arrange for his father to pay his passage on the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. But as soon as the voyage begins, the series zooms forward, all sails billowing in a refreshing breeze of growth and understanding. We see Darwin develop as a naturalist, a humanist, a scientist . . . a man. It is as exciting as being there -- and a lot more comfortable.

The major strength of the series, aside from its luxuriously photographed tour of the world, is the gentle sensitivity of its handling of the man's relationship with his father and uncle, his gradually evolving disillusionment with his religious beliefs, his self-deprecatory nature, his doubts about the validity of his own findings, his relationships with Captain FitzRoy and the crew of the ship, as well as his later relationships with Thomas Huxley and the world of science. Malcolm Stoddard draws a superbly painfully yet accurate portrait of this driven man, ambivalently certain and uncertain about his place in science and religion.

The conflict between the established church and the world of science is handled with delicacy and understanding. Darwin was a man who found it impossible to compromise about his belief that natural selection alone was responsible for the superiority of man and refused to allow the mention of a supreme being in his masterwork. However, as producer Christopher Ralling points out in a book covering the series material to be published simultaneously , in a letter written in 1869 Darwin said: "If I lived twenty years more, how I should modify the origin. . . .Well, it is a beginning and that is something. . . ."

"The Voyage of Charles Darwin," too, is really something: seven hours of the kind of program which by itself almost justifies the intrusive role of TV in our society. Not only skill and authenticity and integrity went into this series, but also a feeling for the exploration of human character, the joy of discovery, the thrill of revelation, the stimulation of controversy. Originating on PBS from WCET (Cincinnati), distributed through Time-Life, funded by Hoffman-La Roche and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, "The Voyage of Charles Darwin" is landmark (or should I say seamark) television.

High schools and colleges throughout the country will be following the series with viewers' guides. But it is possible simply to sit down, lean back, and enjoy it as a unique entertainment/information experience.

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