It may be fiction, but CSI has arguably exerted more influence on the viewing public than any documentary ever has. Compelling evidence of this comes in the form of 'the CSI effect', a curious phenomenon identified last year. Not to be confused with 'the CSI box-set effect', whereby subjects hole themselves up in a darkened room for the weekend to watch episode after episode of the show on DVD while eating junk food, the CSI effect is a trend that has had prosecution lawyers in the United States up in arms.
In a post-CSI world, jurors no longer believe damning testimony from witnesses is enough to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. Now, they are demanding the kind of conclusive forensic evidence they see Gil Grissom (William L. Petersen) and co dig up each week before they will deliver a guilty verdict.
Unfortunately, not every murder is investigated with the meticulous speed and accuracy the show would have us believe. The television sleuths may get the results of DNA and toxicology tests within the hour, but in real life, it can take months - due in part to a huge surge in requests for such procedures from law enforcers since the show began.
While laser microdissection, photometric stereo imaging and video spectral analysis are wondrous weapons in the fight against crime, budget restraints mean they are not always an option. The lack of availability of this kind of evidence has been blamed for acquittals in a number of recent seemingly open-and-shut murder cases. Justice, it appears, is not so much blind as microscopic.
Fortunately, none of this detracts from the enjoyment of what remains an engrossing and hugely watchable show. Returning for a sixth season this week (Wednesdays, AXN at 11pm), the CSI team are called in to investigate a fire at a caravan park, where evidence points to the wife of a man who had been enjoying some extramarital activities inside a burned-out home-on-wheels. Meanwhile, a stripper, wearing a bin liner and a pair of rubber boots, is found dead in a shady part of town and
two decomposing corpses are discovered in the boot of an abandoned car.
The personal lives of the CSI team members are also getting messy. Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is shocked to discover Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) has married his new girlfriend, while Nick Stokes (George Eads) hasn't fully recovered from the terrifying subterranean ordeal he suffered at the end of season five.
Although the clue-led narratives and cutting-edge science drive the action forward, it is the strength of
the characters that has kept the show fresh for the past six years. One look at the grossly inferior CSI Miami demonstrates that it takes more than murders and microscopes to make a hit show and you get the feeling CSI will still be going strong long after rigor mortis sets in for its many imitators.
There's a post-mortem examination of a different kind in Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real (today, Discovery Channel at 9pm). Chronicling 'the natural history of the most fascinating animal that never existed', this special combines legend, scientific fact and theory to hypothesise how dragons might have lived had they roamed the Earth.
Although it utilises the same CGI animation that brought Tyrannosaurus Rex et al to life in the likes of Walking with Dinosaurs, Dragons is a different beast. In addition to the reconstruction of how dragons would have looked, hunted and evolved, this show follows the fictional story of a dragon-obsessed palaeontologist who is given the opportunity of a lifetime when the frozen body of one of the mythical beasts is found in the Carpathian Mountains, in Romania.
As the dragon autopsy progresses, the biological processes by which the creatures were able to fly and breathe fire are gradually 'revealed', as is the mystery of how this one came to die atop a mountain in Eastern Europe. Parallel to this modern drama, Ian Holm (The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) narrates the story of dragons from prehistoric times through to their final battles with man in the Middle Ages.
These segments are presented in the style of a nature documentary and follow the struggles of a juvenile dragon through to adulthood. The highlight, however, is their death-defying mating rituals - think Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in Top Gun, but with dragons instead of fighter jets.
The show also compares dragon legends from around the world and imagines how the animal could have survived the cataclysmic event that eradicated its cousin, the dinosaur, before evolving into the different species depicted in ancient folklore, such as sea serpents, Chinese forest dragons and the airborne mountain variety (above).
This show manages to make the argument for the potential existence of dragons so persuasively, you may think twice before dismissing them as fantasy - although it'll never stand up in court.