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0 out of 4 stars


The central issue of our time is the West's interaction with Islam.

Oddly enough, this was also a central issue 25 years ago, and back then the issue came into focus because of a TV program. In 1980, there was an almighty fuss about a docudrama, Death of a Princess. The fuss spread from Britain to the United States and it involved governments, politicians and giant corporations.

When Death of a Princess was about to air on British TV, the government of Saudi Arabia protested vehemently. It threatened economic sanctions. The threat meant that access to Saudi oil might be denied, and that was a very serious threat. It wasn't enacted, but the Saudis recalled their ambassador from London.

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A short time later, the same docudrama was about to be shown on the PBS program World, the precursor of today's Frontline. A major PBS sponsor, Mobil Oil, was anxious that Death of a Princess not be shown at all, and several members of the U.S. Congress agreed. It was a bad time to anger the Saudis. President Jimmy Carter was getting nowhere trying to free American hostages in Iran. Saudi Arabia was a stable country and an American ally. The thinking was that it would be suicidal to annoy the Saudis.

Later that same year, D eath of a Princess aired in the U.S., just as it had in Britain. For those of you too young to recall the controversy, the core issue was straightforward. The program was a dramatization of a journalist's long and tricky search for the truth about an execution in Saudi Arabia in 1977. Princess Mishaal bint Fahd bin Mohammed, a granddaughter of the King's elder brother, was publicly executed for adultery, as was her alleged lover Khalid Mahallal. The execution would have remained unreported but for the presence near the scene of a British construction worker.

After the news of the execution began to spread, a legend began to blossom. The Princess died for love, according to the legend. She was a tragic figure. The Saudi government was outraged that an internal matter was the subject of both lurid speculation and a TV drama. It just wanted it stopped.

Frontline: Death of a Princess (PBS, 9 p.m.) is both a repeat of the original program and an examination of the politics of the 1980 controversy. It tells us that we probably know as little about Saudi Arabia now as we did in 1980.

Oddly, the first thing it reveals is that the docudrama at the centre of the controversy wasn't actually very good. The acting is stiff, the dialogue is arch and as a narrative, it is a mess.

But as you watch Death of a Princess you realize that the narrative muddle is the point. The journalist, Christopher Ryder (Paul Freeman), traipses around the Middle East and hears all manner of variations on the story of the Princess. Some say she attended university in Beirut. Ryder speculates that she was therefore given a glimpse of liberation and it affected her thinking. Someone else says she never went to university and she was an "empty-headed girl" who only read movie magazines. One version of the story has her in court on adultery charges and declaring her own guilt. It is said by some people that her grandfather stopped her testimony and asked her to reconsider, but she refused.

In the end, when the truth emerges, it is more sordid and banal than all the myths. It is precisely why the Saudi government was so annoyed by the program.

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The discussion and analysis after the docudrama only reinforce this view that the truth about life inside Saudi Arabia, especially about its royal family, is elusive. One commentator says the situation of women has improved vastly since 1980. Another says it hasn't. We are left with a mystery, just as the journalist found a mystery more than 25 years ago.

This Is Wonderland (CBC, 9 p.m. ) has a crackerjack episode tonight. A plethora of familiar Canadian actors turn up in various roles. Some get to act insanely and others don't.

First, there's the usual sort of gnarly legal business for the lawyers. Alice (Cara Pifko) is talking to her client Eunice about her case. Alice says, "You stole a police cruiser." Eunice says, "Yeah, to chase after my husband who was on his way to meet his girlfriend. Any woman woulda done the same thing. And I never woulda been able to steal that cop's car if he hadn't left it to go chat up those hookers." Naturally, Alice despairs of the client.

Then James (Michael Healey) defends a guy (Rick Roberts, from Made in Canada), who attacked the garbage collector for not collecting the garbage. As the guy sees it, if he puts out stuff, it's garbage. If the collectors don't take it, he's entitled to act. He's darn angry.

Meanwhile, in the cells beneath the courts sits another defendant (Dan Lett, from Made in Canada), who has burned down his brother's shed. And that's only the half of it.

Some issues are resolved and others are not. There is a particularly scary segment in which Alice deals with an aggressive, disturbed man in the bowels of the courthouse. The mixture of comedy and tense drama is always volatile, and on some episodes of Wonderland, it just misfires. This one's perfectly blended.

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