In Search Of… S03E07 Siberian Fireball

Cold open on a nuclear explosion. Okay, In Search Of. You have my attention.

Nimoy says that, sure nuclear tests were big in the '50s, but there may have been a nuclear explosion in 1908. We're talking Tunguska, baby! The 'Tunguska Blast' was a real event, an anomalous explosion in depths of Siberia. It's as interesting as hell, but there's that word: anomalous. 'Anomalous' is to fringe thinkers is like a red rag is to a bull.

Tunguska, Tunguska Tunguska, Ya, Ya

Looking at pictures of stars now. Nimoy talks about satellites so maybe alien space probes? Maye Tunguska was caused by the V'Ger? Close up on map of Siberia 'a land Nature has forsaken'. It looks pretty barren. There's some Soviet era black and white footage of Siberian peasants and music that's meant to sound like a balalaika. Nimoy gives the usual patronising speech people get if they aren't living in First World conditions. Simple people, ancient traditions, blah blah.

Moving fairly quickly to 'a legend that has puzzled scientists for eighty years'. Let's see, 1908 to 1978 that's… uh… carry the one… eighty years. All checks out. Anyway, In Search Of claims that the legend claims that a bluish cylinder crashed down, June 30 1908. The object exploded. Cue stock footage of atom bomb.

We talk now to a woman who witnessed… Sorry, whose parents witnessed the explosion. She basically says it was a huge explosion, though, which is not in dispute. Perhaps we should let the hearsay pass. 'Technical journals' observed unusual haze at sunset.

Nimoy, standing in a forest which I'm pretty sure is not in Siberia, says that the blast knocked people off their feet 200 miles away. That's pretty effin' metal! Anyway, big blast = mystery, Cool footage of an early seismograph, of the type that picked up on the explosion as far away as London and Washington DC.

More black and white Soviet footage, this time of a sled caravan through Siberia. I don't know if this is actual footage of the 1927 expedition to Tunguska or just something illustrative, but it looks cool either way. Nimoy tells us the expedition was lead by Leonid Kulik, who went to prove that the explosion was caused by a meteor impact.

I'm no expert, but that seems like a plausible theory. A little too plausible if you follow me. Let's see what Thomas Atkins has to say. He wrote a book on Tunguska based on the work of Kulik and other Soviet scientists. Atkins also has the widest friggin' collar ever. I mean, go home, 1970s, your work has been done. Anyway Atkins  explains that Kulik found a massive ring of trees that had been knocked over by the blast. That's what the footage is showing, so I guess it's the real deal? Anyway, Atkins says that at the centre of the collapsed forest was not a crater, but a bunch of trees that were dead but still upright.

And the spooky music goes wild!

But seriously, it's legit creepy looking. They cut away to a meteor crater in Arizona and the music goes normal, then back to Tunguska and it's spooky electronica time again. Nimoy basically says that this puts Tunguska back in play as spooky speculation territory, and I must begrudgingly concede the point.

Ronald Moriti (sp?), a real astronomer, is allowed to get a word in first, which is nice. His theory is that the Tunguska meteorite was made of a crumbly material that fell apart in the atmosphere, releasing energy but not actually impacting the Earth. His stripey jersey is… no, actually it suits him. Meanwhile, Charles Cole of Caltech believes that a comet exploded over Tunguska, its physical remains vapourising, thus explaining the lack of debris.

Next up is Isaac Asimov… yes, the Isaac Asimov. He gives a little lesson on changing ideas about the state of the universe and how much more violent and potentially destructive than previously imagined. He suggests a mini-black hole may have hit Tunguska. He also points out that there's no evidence of this, and that he favours the comet theory.

Over footage of the flattened forest, Nimoy brings Soviet science writer, Kosanseff, who suggested that the blast was nuclear, but 'who or what' caused this blast 'remained a mystery. Shots of stars, Earth seen from space. Nimoy talks about how everyone agrees that Tunguska was caused by an object from outer space but there are diverging opinion on what.

Is it aliens? Are we at the aliens yet? I mean, come on scientists are disagreeing here. Must be aliens, right?

Not yet, I guess. Instead, we're looking at analysis of the blast.  Atkins again, talking about the size and power of the fireball. More footage of the creepy forest. Nimoy says that Atkins and Kosanseff both suggested a nuclear blast – but a naturally occurring nuclear blast seems unprecedented. Over footage of solar flares, we're reminded that nuclear fusion is a thing. Uh… Oh, and around other suns are planets and surely they harnessed fusion power, right?

But before this idea is given a chance to breather, were at an experiment in New Mexico – oh, it's the Manhattan Project. Lots of atomic tests since then. Not sure where we're going here, but the file footage of nuclear blasts is awesome, as is Nimoy's description of the Manhattan Project people as 'Earth scientists'.

Nimoy claims that there are parallels between nuclear blasts and Tunguska. He proves his point  with footage of Hiroshima, and the single intact building directly under the detonation point which is now the focal point of Hiroshima Peace Park. The rest of the town is rubble.

Now some wonderful footage of Soviet scientists doing… something sciencey. Looking at maps, checking microscopes, holding transparencies up to windows. Basically, where we're going with this is that the epicentres of both Tunguska and Hiroshima were less damaged than the surrounding areas. Also, evidence of rapid plant growth and traces of radioactive material. Shots of people of Hiroshima looking distraught at the ringing of a bell – some sort of remembrance ceremony? Seriously, why bring that into your silly space explosion show? A little taste, please.

The woman from the beginning whose parents saw the blast is brought back to tell us of the 'ill health' that has plagued her family. More Soviet scientists who build a little forest out of matchsticks. Oh! That's adorable! I think I like Soviet scientists more than Nazi scientists. More whimsical for a start. Anyway, they put matchsticks on little wires set into a grid that Nimoy improbably claims is 'an exact scale model' of the Tunguska forest. They fiddle with clunky 1950s style Soviet controls and an explosion goes off over the matchstick forest. The trees fall in much the same pattern as the trees at Tunguska.

The music goes into creepy overload. Nimoy claims this proves that it was a nuclear blast. Yeah. Okay. Look: the explosions over the model forest weren't nuclear, were they? The entire experiment is based on the idea that conventional and nuclear explosives can form similar blast patterns. What they've proved here – fairly conclusively to my non-expert eye – was that the Tunguska explosion took place above ground level. That's it – all those astronomical theories are still in play, because they're based on outer space objects exploding above ground level.

Anyway, Nimoy wonders who could have set off a nuke in 1908, so naturally the next person interviewed is journalist Henry Gree, author of New Soviet Psychic Discoveries. Right! Three minutes to the end, let's get some wackiness in. He's the only American to interview Soviet physicist Alexi Zolatov, a man so important to this story that he hasn't even been mentioned until now. Gree talks about how cool Zolatov was and how he used a process of elimination (!) to prove that Tunguska was caused by aliens. The blast was a message from the aliens to tell us that they are there, they are awesome an they are watching our civilization benevolently. Like how I started a fire next to my neighbour's swimming pool to show that I'd watch out for his house.

More footage of the smashed trees. Back to Atkins. I was starting to think that maybe I'd misjudged Atkins and thinking that maybe he was writing something not-too-out-there about Tunguska, but no. He flat out says that the flight path of the object altered, proving that it was ETs. The old woman whose parents saw the blast says that they thought it might be the end of the world, and her words are illustrated with footage of an a-bomb test, which is manipulative at the least.

Back to the stars. Back to Asimov. He talks about the strangeness of the universe and the importance of keeping an open mind. And then that's it.

This is one of those weird episodes that come up now and then. In Search Of is a documentary about weirdness and sometimes there's an almost palpable tension between the documentary side and the weirdness side. You could trim perhaps five minutes of nonsense out of this episode and have a pretty decent short documentary about the history and science of Tunguska. Instead, we get that with some tacked on 'aliens' stuff. It's not even that interesting – SF writers have filled in the blanks around Tunguska with a thousand exotic ideas, and all this show offers us is generic benevolent aliens. The closing quote from Asimov just emphasises this. He says that the universe is stranger than you think, which somehow gets translated as 'the universe is exactly as strange as we think.' Result: boring strangeness.

Quote

"It was this big boom." The eyewitness'' daughter.  Twenty-odd minutes of show, and they could have just gone with this line.

Summing Up

Archive footage: 9/10, Enjoyably crazy theories: 5/10, Nimoyness: 8/10, Electronic music: 8/10, Holy crap is that Isaac freakin' Asimov: 10/10. Overall: 40/50. Distinction.

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