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.
In the studio, Nimoy tells us about Kenneth Arnold's famous UFO sighting in 1947, from which the term 'flying saucer' 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 helicopter 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 polygraphed 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 the landing sites of UFOs. 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. Okay, sometimes I can't help myself, but mostly, what I want from this episode isn't a feeling of being right, or even a desire to feel right.
What I want is that little catch in the gut -- that slight quickening of the breath, that little momentary feeling of well, maybe. This episode has that in spades. This is what In Search of… provides that Ancient Aliens does not. That little thrill of uncertainty and fear, before I shake my head and go 'naaah.'
Keep watching the skies!
'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
Intrusive electronic music: 9/10, Storytelling: 9/10, Cool accents: 10/10, Camerawork: 9/10, Nimoyness: 10/10. Overall: 47/50. High Distinction.