Ape myths

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 July, 1999, 12:00am

The X Files has, in name at least, spawned The X Creatures (Pearl, 8pm), a new series exploring the sort of mysterious mythological animals that might interest agents Mulder and Scully.

This, though, is pure documentary, with biologist, writer and presenter Chris Packham exploring the myths and evidence for the continued existence of large apemen, aquatic monsters and extinct tigers, and then testing this against the essential rules of biology.

This measured series from the BBC starts with one of the most famous X Creatures, the 'abominable snowman' or yeti, in Yeti, Myths And Men, and the creature's place in Sherpa history and culture. But do not be disappointed: Packham is not so unrealistic as to set out across the Himalayas, with film crew in tow, to try to film one of these creatures. Instead, he uses dramatic reconstructions to recall sightings and his own detective work to assess the chance of its existence.

He knocks one myth firmly on the head: that such an elusive creature can live solely above the snow-line. Of course, an ape would need food and shelter from the forests of Nepal and Tibet for its survival. As for those large footprints, Packham shows how small prints expand when they melt and refreeze in the snow.

Packham is not totally dismissive of the existence of an X Creature ape, given the strong fossil record of Asian apes and that the yeti could once have lived alongside man. But the programme puts forward much stronger evidence for 'orang pendek', or the 'short man', believed by many to live in the forest of Kerinchi Seblat in Sumatra and the continued subject of scientific investigation.

Packham also provides some clues as to why we are so fascinated by such ape creatures. The four great apes known to exist are the orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and humans, and we share 99 per cent of our genes with the other three. It is no wonder that a more human-like ape, caught in the time-warp of evolution, should be even more interesting.

But that 99 per cent fact leaves food for thought. If those three great apes are so similar to us, how can we put them in cages and gawp at them? And what would we do with a yeti or an orang pendek if we did find one? Maybe it is better for the world's last remaining X Creatures that we do not.

The 30th anniversary of man's first step on the moon has been and gone and last week the mission was also accomplished by Tony Goldwyn, who played Neil Armstrong in Tom Hanks' record of that great human achievement.

But the series From The Earth To The Moon (Pearl, 10.30pm) continues, with the producers at least capturing some public sentiment with the episode that had to follow the climactic first landing. It is called That's All There Is, reflecting the anti-climax of the second mission to the moon.

Despite taking off during a lightning storm, which nearly caused the mission to be aborted, Apollo 12's voyage was almost trouble-free.

Their main problems did not come from the incredible technology required for a voyage to the moon, but from their cameras, indicative of the painstaking record this series is creating.