Horizon used to be about science and scientists. You’d get nice stories with illustrations, some talking heads, and would feel better informed. However, now, Horizon requires celebs to introduce the stories. I believe this started with Danny Wallace (the Dave Gorman one not the former Southampton player) and has now been followed by some time death penalty advocate Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo (he changed his mind when he realised that juries and judges sometimes get it wrong) – who last night was subject to various tests in his pursuit of the perfect killing machine – all described by Paul McGann.
This show did not consider the ethics and morality of the death penalty but instead focussed on Portillo’s determination to identify criteria that should underpin the particular death penalty. Now, I’m sure this was not intended as a comedy and the programme did warn of some disturbing scenes, but balanced between the disturbing (holocaust gas chamgers, rabbits being killed with cyanide gas, the electrocution of Faraday’s elephant, the electrocution of a dead pig) there was much unintentional comedy (discussed anon, but highlighted by the editorial decision to stress that Michael can’t spell electrocution properly, his google search on the topic of “electricution” resulting in a “Did you mean electrocution?” response).
Portillo discounted lethal injection (doctors aren’t keen on killing people – it goes against some oath or other); he had a careful scientific study of hanging where a dummy dressed a la Portillo was subject to the British drop where the dummy’s neck was well and truly fractured, and then the American drop (two feet longer for someone of Portillo’s weight and height) where the dummy was decapitated – its head bouncing off the gym mats on the floor.
Portillo then discounted electrocution – following a detailed study with a(n already dead) pig where natural sponges operated more efficiently than artificial sponges which left severe burning on the scalp and nearly amputated its feet. They had another couple of shots just to make sure the dead pig was really dead. We were then merrily told that the severe burning had happened to some unfortunates in the US and that people thought this was a cruel punishment).
Michael then turned to poison gas and from this point became an active participant in the process. Apparently cyanide is a painless method of killing if the prisoner co-operates. To test this Michael was let loose in a tent full of CS gas where he was ordered to keep his eyes open (he couldn’t), to breathe deeply (he couldn’t), and then to speak his name and date of birth – we caught his name but the date of birth was swallowed somewhat. Portillo concluded as he heaved and looked either immediately pre or immediately post vomit, depending on the scene, that prisoners were unlikely to participate fully.
Thus far, it seemed to be a bad time for death penalty methods – some were too painful, some too gruesome for viewers, some caused problems for doctors (the ethics of a state murdering anyone at all apparently not concerning our intrepid adventurer). Portillo though had an idea. If we discount doctor’s concerns, gore, pain, gruesomeness and other delights what would do?
The thought of subjecting Michael to Prudence the Presbyterian on neo-classical endogenous growth theory crossed my mind as the perfect killing machine, but Michael had an alternative: hypoxia. Deprive the body of oxygen. To test this Portillo was deprived of oxygen in two ways. He was sent to Holland (presumably the producers had read Amsterdam and felt that the Portillo-esque government minister there would have benefited form sharing the fate of the two principal protagonists in some Dutch boudoir). First by spinning him around in a system to mimic extreme G forces where first you feel heavy, then you lose peripheral vision, then you only see grey, and then ta ta Michael. Second, and more entertaining was subjecting him to sudden high altitude experiences – whcih was coupled with asking Michael various simple questions “What’s 8 minus 3?” and giving him a toddler’s shape-sorting ball – put the star in the correct hole. Convinced of his supreme powers Portillo mugged and grinned his way through the tests, his full lips growing ever fuller as he failed to find any hole on the ball, and answered 4 to his basic arithmetic. When then given the option to put his oxygen back on or die he smiled gamely and waved his ball in the air, before being rescued by a fully oxygenated Dutch airman.
Convinced that hypoxia was the answer Portillo applied his former Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s mind to realise that while huge systems attempting to recreate extreme G-forces or altitude chambers would be perfect killing machines they would be too costly and big. Thus, could he identify a small cheap perfect killing machine?
The answer seemed to be yes, as he interviewed a man who kills farm animals and concluded that Nitrogen and Argon would satisfy the hypoxia thresholds.
Thus enlightened he visited the land of the free where he put forward his proposal to a loony, sorry death penalty advocate and professor.
“I have come up with the perfect killing machine” Portillo modestly proclaimed as if auditioning for cash on dragon’s den. “Why not kill your prisoners with nitrogen. It induces a state of euphoria” (which I imagine is somewhere in the mid-west) “and they die painlessly.” He smugly awaited a reply to his scientific endeavours.
The loon was not impressed. Where was the pain? Where was the gore? This killer’s victims had suffered, so should the killer.
I rather got the impression that he favoured the mode of state murder being linked to the mode of private murder. And presumably Michael did too for he made his excuses and left.
Thus, we were no further forward – other than to feel sick at the idea of a programme that looked at the death penalty for entertainment, and appeared to lack any moral centre. Still, for 5 minutes in the altitude chamber Harry Hill has enough material for half of TV Burp on Saturday so we should be thankful for small pleasures.
PS and for those wanitng to thrill again to the TV Burp moments youtube kindly has this with Dutch accent, and McGann commentary plus questions and shape sorting ball here.