My favourite stories on In Search Of… are undoubtedly the sightings ones. They're fun and spooky and almost completely harmless. I don't think that there's anything unusual to be found in Lake Okanagan, for example, but a) if there is, it's pretty cool and b) if there isn't there's no real harm in thinking that there is.
But while they're the most fun to watch, they aren't always the most interesting to review. Basically, they run the formula of crappy re-enactments and lots and lots of people delivering their 'I saw it' anecdote straight to camera.
Will this episode do better? Let's see.
This episode opens on a crappy re-enactment. D'oh! A water-skier on Lake Okanagan in Canada fell off her skies, then started screaming. When she was picked up by her boat, she claimed to have seen a serpent. I say crappy re-enactment, but it's actually better than some of the re-enactments we've seen. Short, to the point, and the screaming is more convincing than some cheap horror movies I've could name.
Now we're off to Loch Ness for a quick recap of a better known lake monster, then back to Lake Okanagan, British Columbia. Nimoy runs through all of the similarities between Okanagan and Ness. Next up, the Surgeon's Photo of Nessie and a bunch of pictures of plesiosaurs.
In an unusually quick about-face, immediately after all but saying that lake monsters are related to the plesiosaur, Nimoy asks if they're fish or mammal or dinosaurs. And now we're getting a lecture on the coelacanth.
(Aside: I just spelt 'coelacanth' correctly on my first try. After needing the help of spellcheck for 'Okanagan' and 'plesiosaur', I'm feeling a little better about myself.)
Anyway, if something like the discovery of the coelacanth could happen once, perhaps it could happen again? If scientists keep discovering real animals, surely that gives hope for made-up ones?
Now we're looking at footage of waves on the lake. It's really quite pretty! If I've learned nothing else from this series, it's that mysterious things are usually found in picturesque terrain. Oh, now a re-enactment again, some Native Americans (or white people dressed as such; the shot of them is quite fare away) riding along the shore, and canoeing in the Lake. Some patronising stuff about how all Native Americans believed basically the same thing, and that thing can be reduced to a soundbite. Not great, but I've heard worse.
But now looking at some actual Native people sitting around a fire. One is talking about how the lake is like a living thing and sacred to his people. He talks about a serpent who lives in the water, which he heard about from his great-great-grandfather. Now Nimoy is talking about this serpent, and how the Native People would offer it a small animal before crossing the lake.
"The Indians' offering can be seen as an act of spiritual sacrifice," Nimoy says, "or as the pragmatic act of appeasing a hungry monster."
I'll take 'A', thanks, Leonard.
Now we're at a nearby museum, talking to a curator who's wearing Native clothes and is standing in front of a mock Native hut. Ah, the 1970s. She says the same thing Nimoy just said, basically, except she names the serpent 'Ogopogo'.
Now we're talking to Mary Moon, author of Ogopogo: the Okanagan Mystery. She's a former journalist and surprisingly stylishly dressed for the late 1970s. She talks about learning about Ogopogo from locals 'of stunning respectability'. Um, thanks?
Now we go from someone saying that there are firsthand accounts, to hearing some actual firsthand accounts. Some nice folks who holiday in the area regularly, who saw a huge creature emerge from the water. It was scary and had fins on its back. They didn't believe in Ogopogo until they saw it.
Another guy talks about seeing a funny looking wave that resolved into two humps. The thing headed towards the shore, but submerged before he arrived.
Neither of these are great stories. The flat west-Canadian accents of the witnesses is kind of pleasant, but it extracts much of the drama from their testimony. For the record, I think that they're being perfectly honest about what they think they saw, of for no other reason than the probability that someone lying for attention would tell the story in a more interesting way.
A man and his daughter were in their boat when they saw Ogopogo. Oooh! Crappy re-enactment! We see these two piloting a boat, tense music sting playing. They took some photos of what could just as easily be a hump or a wave. The dad gives a wonderfully silly explanation of why they've sighted Ogopogo so often: electrolysis caused by the action of the propeller of his outboard motor attracts marine life.
Nimoy, to my surprise, admits that the pictures look kind of like a wave. So we zoom in on something 'more difficult to explain'… Nope. still looks like a wave. Sorry, Leonard.
An In Search Of… camera team goes out looking for the monster. Nimoy admits that the chances of success are slim. They head off to a position suggested by eyewitnesses. Nimoy says a few interesting things about underwater photography. And holy crap! The underwater footage is really cool. The lake is crystal clear. We don't see any fishes though, which Nimoy claims is significant. No monster is found, which as Nimoy rightly points out, proves nothing.
A public meeting is held, and is quite well attended. People are canvassed for their sighting stories. There are a few volunteers – an old lady that looks like she stepped out of a Gary Larson cartoon and a mumbly elderly man tell their stories.
Nimoy says that moving images reflected in the water can be deceiving. I expect that this means that the next story is of someone who thought they saw the monster but realised that they were wrong, but instead it's about someone who thought he saw a log but it was Ogopogo. Touché. Another elderly couple say they saw the monster.
I wonder when they held this meeting? I'm guessing during work hours, since there don't seem to be any younger people there.
Nimoy wonders if the 'humps' people see are in fact waves. Another woman tells her story.
And then something hilarious. There's helicopter footage of three clear, dark humps in the water, so evenly spaced it doesn't seem like if could be a wave. And it's not. It's three tires tied together by someone deliberately pranking the In Search Of… film crew. We cut back to Nimoy, who smiles ruefully at this. He goes on to talk about the sincerity of the people who believe in Ogopogo.
This segues into a Ogopogo sighter who is visiting an aquarium to compare the animals there to what he saw. Nimoy rules out whales as a suspect, and asks whether Ogopogo might be a giant eel. If I remember correctly, the eel theory was also advanced in the Loch Ness Monster episode.
The camera crew descends again, checking out underwater caverns. They find nothing. They talk to Arlene Gall, an author who owns what is supposed to be the only video footage of Ogopogo. It certainly shows a dark shape underwater that seems to be in motion, but I couldn't quite follow the connection between what Gall claims happened in the film and what I could see. To be fair, this was grainy film, refilmed for late 1970s TV transmission so the fact that I couldn't make anything out doesn't really mean anything. The In Search Of… people zoom in on one frame, claiming that a white patch is foam, therefore the shape broke water, which seems to be stretching things.
Willard Baskin, Director of the Southern Californian Coastal Waters Research Project, states that he finds 'sea monsters' plausible, but thinks it unlikely that anything of a huge size had time to evolve in Lake Okanagan. He talks about the difficulties that such a creature might face and concludes that we don't know anything about it. I like this guy. He doesn't seem so much like a passionate debunker as someone who wants to use the popular fondness for sea monsters as an inroad to talking about biology.
Now back to the grainy footage, while Nimoy sums up. Nimoy asks could so many people be wrong? He addresses the camera directly, concluding that something very large lives in Lake Okanagan.
Like I say, I love episodes like this. Sure they co-opt Native American mythology. Sure, they simply ignore the discrepancies between eyewitness accounts concerning the size, colour and physical makeup of the monster. But in the end, there's nothing seriously wrong with them. They give at least a little frisson of the unknown and sometimes a guilty little sense of fear. But they don't misinform quite so egregiously as some of In Search Of's episodes on history or archaeology for example.
Coming up next week: Pyramid Mysteries.
(Sighs. Takes drink.)
Willard Baskin: "I do believe that in the open ocean, there's probably lots of very large animals that are so rarely seen by man – sea monsters, if you will – animals of a certain kind which are much larger than others like them."
Grainy footage: 9/10, Eyewitness accountsL 8/10, Canadian accents: 8/10, Taking a prank with good grace: 9/10, Nimoyness: 8/10. Overall: 42/50. Distinction