In Search Of… S01E21 UFOs

We open with a helicopter tracking shot of American countryside, and Leonard Nimoy delivers his best oration yet:

"They've been reported in dusk or at the dead of night. In clearings, amidst still woods and fields and lonely farm country. Sometimes they come in silence, sometimes with quiet thunder. Often, they leave marks in the earth, signals of their passing. They've been seen but fleetingly, and their extraordinary presence creates a frightening mystery."

I don't believe in flying saucers for a second and that sent a shiver down my spine. If you're a believer, that's gotta be super awesome.

Science!
Science!

In the studio, Nimoy tells us about Kenneth Arnold's famous UFO sighting in 1947, from which the term 'flying sauce' originates. As Nimoy says, the Arnold's 'saucer' analogy referred to the way the UFOs moved – like thrown saucers skipping over water – rather than to the shape of the things. The fact that many future sightings were described as saucer shaped is interesting.

But I digress. Nimoy moves on quickly to other sightings. There are some nice arty shots of a house outside of Mellon, Wisconsin. No music, just quiet, country sounds of wind and birds and Nimoy's voice on top of it. So good! Nimoy assures us that the people who had a sighting here are very down to earth.

They certainly look it. A white rural family at the dinner table. Big family, square as hell. Nimoy gives a long, glowing recital about just how down to earth dad is: local born, family man, former union officer (ah, for the days of the 1970s, when people could be praised for their union work--on the TV no less!). According to the narration thee people are almost a cliché of family values and Protestant work ethic.

Let me pause here for a second to say that I am not suggesting that this description is in any way inaccurate. I have absolutely no reason to believe that. I just think it's irrelevant to their reliability as witnesses. Ah, but I'm so busy getting scepticky that I miss the dramatic electronic music sting as they tell their story about… that night. Sorry folks.

Dramatic music sting over shot of empty Wisconsin road! The daughter of the family tells of seeing a weird, lit-up  object, putting the cat she was holding in the garage for safety and running to the house. Dad tells of going down to get a better look at the thing, which was twelve feet across, six feet high, shaped 'like a turtle'.

I love his accent.

They called the sheriff, but the object left before he arrived. The kids were upset because they couldn't say anything to the kids at school. Dad tells how sad his daughter was when he said she shouldn't say anything, and about how embarrassed he was when the sheriff left. He actually gets quite emotional telling this story, as a voice-over on his kids getting on the school bus.

I actually quite like this bit quite a lot. Some of the sighting stories on this show are pretty flat. They boil down to someone saying 'I saw a Bigfoot' or 'I saw Nessie'. This one works a little better than many. It's better told, it has some nice details, it's well edited and both parts of the story are told with expression and emotion. And, like I say, cool accents.

Next up, we talk to the editor of the local newspaper. He's wearing an apron. So he doesn't get printer's ink on his shirt. If nothing else, this show shows just how much things have changed in the last forty years. He says that the father of the family asked not to have the story put in the paper, and so honoured his wishes and didn't publish.

So much difference in forty years.

And then there's creepy music and a foreboding shot of the lane where the sighting was made, and Nimoy tells us that the story got out anyway.

Next up, we're talking to the sheriff who investigated the initial complaint. He looks exactly like I'd expect a Wisconsin sheriff to look – bald, white, burly. He says that he investigated, and believes that the family did see something. Nimoy explains over a heleicopter tracking shot of Wisconsin countryside that immediately after leaving the scene of the initial sighting, the sheriff had a report of lights in the sky. He and a couple of deputies when chasing the objects, trying to intercept them.

Full points for optimism, I guess.

More helicopter shots, this time of 'Big Chimney, West Virginia', winner of the 'Most Made-Up Sounding Town Name Award' six years running. Nimoy points out that many UFO sightings seem to happen in small towns and rural areas. This is usually put forward as an argument by sceptics, and it's always kind of snobby, suggesting that country people are stupid yokels. But Nimoy actually makes a half-decent argument as to why this should be, citing better views, people more likely to be looking up at the sky than in cities and so on.

In Big Chimney, a guy tells his story of seeing lights in the sky which his wife thought were unusually bright for airplane lights. He then saw a diamond shaped craft. His story is told over footage of him walking in the countryside, and Nimoy reveals that this is where he saw the craft land. The guy points to some marks on the ground which 'could have been caused by landing gear'.

The guy is then wired into a polygraph and tells his story. The polygraph guy tells us that he polygraphs the sighting guy. Get that? The polygraph guy points at some squiggly lines on the paper.

Nimoy points out – quite rightly – that the polygraph test can't show that the guy did see a flying saucer, only that he believes that he is telling the truth. Honestly, I don't think that a polygraph can reliably do even that much, but the scene where sighting guy is being questioned by polygraph guy is nice and tense, with no music – just the tick of the machine. Polygraph guy says that the polygraph shows no sign of lying.

Over a shot of sighting guy walking, Nimoy says that it would be surprising if a man 'not noted for imagination or guile' would make up something like that. I agree. I don't believe in flying saucers and I also don't see any particular reason at all to believe that this particular guy is a liar or a hoaxer, and I don't see the slightest discrepancy between those two positions. Nimoy claims that it's easier to believe that the guy saw something extraordinary than to believe that he is lying. I think he's on thinner ice there.

I liked sighting guy's accent too.

Next up is a guy Nimoy calls 'an amateur scientist and UFO investigator' and who I call 'the most 1970s-y guy ever' (see picture). He takes soil samples at UFO landing sites. Nimoy says that most of the sightings he investigates are misinterpretations of mundane phenomena, some 'nine hundred cases' remain unexplained.

70s guy sends his soil samples to the University of Kansas Aerospace department, where they are studied by Dr Edward Zeller. There's some lovely footage of Zeller playing with huge 1970s analytic equipment.

Now we're looking at Medford, Minnesota. Huge, boxy 1970s vehicles! Zeller got a test sample from here. A local woman who lives in the most suburban suburban house of all time tells the story. Looking out her window, she saw a UFO come down and land in a football field. The woman's mother says she saw it, and so did many others in town. A guy in a car agrees, he saw it too. The original witness' mother shows the football field, and says there was a patch of brown grass where the UFO would have landed.

In his lab, Dr Zeller in his best safari suit tests the soil sample for Medford for radioactivity. There's a nice little montage, cutting between people who saw the UFO and Dr Zeller in his lab, testing the soil. The sinister electronic music stings really set it off. The Medford people are very keen to know what happened, while Dr Zeller talks in his teacher voice about what he's discovered. Zeller concludes that some of the soil samples have been exposed to some sort of high-energy radiation.

One of the witnesses says that there is nothing but her word. Nimoy says that there is more than her word, while the camera points at the patch of bare earth in the middle of the football field.  It should be laughable, but… you know… Nimoy.

Nimoy sums up, telling of a recent poll saying that many Americans believe in flying saucers. There's some lovely sci-fi art, reconstructing the sightings that this episodes, um, cited. Then Nimoy is talking about Project Blue Book.

I don't believe in flying saucers. Technically, I believe in UFOs, since sometimes people see things in the sky and don't know what they are, so said flying objects are not identified. But I think the chance that any of these objects are extraterrestrial spacecraft is so low as to be negligible.

Having said that, I love flying saucer stories. Well told, they can be very unsettling, and I enjoy that in a story. Like I said, I don't want to get too sceptic-y here. Ok, sometimes I can't help myself, but mostly, what I get from this episode isn't a feeling of being right, or even a desire to feel right. What I get is that little catch in the gut, that slight quickening of the breath. This episode has that in spades. This is what In Search of… provides that Ancient Aliens does not. That little feeling of uncertainty and fear.

Keep watching the skies!

Best quotes:

'If I hadn't seen the UFO, I wouldn't believe in it. I wouldn’t believe me.'

'For we can only hope that if we are being studied by aliens, it is with more thoroughness and care than we have focused on them.' - Nimoy

Summing up:

Intrusive electronic music: 9/10, Storytelling: 9/10, Cool accents: 10/10, Camerawork: 9/10, Nimoyness: 10/10. Overall: 47/50. High Distinction.

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3 thoughts on “In Search Of… S01E21 UFOs

  1. John

    Probably the best IN SEARCH OF... episode of all time, imo.

    Not to sound like a creepy stalker, but one thing I love is Googling the people and places from these old shows. Most times, the people are long deceased. Such as the Mellen Wisconsin father, and the guy who ran the Mellen newspaper. Incidentally, that paper is still in business today. Here's a link.

    https://www.facebook.com/Mellen-Weekly-Record-XL-Publishing-153519014658180/

    With just a couple clicks (a few years ago when I first bought these DVDs) I was able to locate the daughter in that story. I decided to politely reach out to her, but she never returned a few inquiries. I had told her that if she didn't feel comfortable discussing the UFO story, that was fine. After sending the message twice, and getting no reply, I figure she's long since moved on from this story, and no longer wishes to discuss it. If the young lady in the episode (not so young now - she'd got to be in her mid to late 50's) ever replies, I'll let you know what she has to say in retrospect. But I highly doubt that will occur. And I will not pester her any further.

    I also attempted to locate the WV guy, but he wasn't easily located, and anything more than a couple clicks wasn't worth my time. I figure in any event he's either in his late 80's or deceased.

    I was going to use GOOGLE EARTH to locate the mysterious football field, but again, my interest had waned.

    I do believe these people saw something. I think they likely saw something that our government was experimenting with. Living close to a military airbase, I've had the privilege of seeing several odd aircraft, including a Stealth Fighter fly overhead, and let me tell ya, if you didn't know what it was, it would freak you out.

    Overall, this is the best episode of the series. The dullest part is the soil sample collector, and his Kansas counterpart that 'tests' the soil. Maybe I'll see if he's still around. I'd love to have his radioactive football field soil tested by an independent lab today. What 70's guy fails to state is that our world is radioactive and has been since it was created. Radioactive elements can be found all over in nature and are found naturally in air, water and yes, soil. So the fact this soil had radioactive elements in and of itself means nothing.

    There's only a few episodes of the series that, even for people who own the entire DVD set like myself, are worth watching more than once. This is one of those episodes.

  2. BG Hilton

    It's a fine episode. Like I say, the sightings ones are my favourites. And yeah, the people who say they saw something probably did see something. UFOs are real -- in that there are flying objects that aren't identified. It's flying saucers that I'm not so sure of.

    I take your point about the people in them, though. I have a thing when I'm writing these episodes that I don't name most of the interviewees, because I really don't know how they feel about being connected to things they saw/say they saw forty years ago. I make exceptions for academics and writers, because I think they make a more informed choice about connecting their reputations to things that they're recorded as saying. But for everyday people, I'm happy just to give a vague description and make fun of their 1970s fashion choices.

  3. John

    I'm following your lead on that, which is why I too didn't name the family members. It'd have been cool to hear from them, but alas....

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