A fern, but not as we know it.
A fern, but not as we know it.

"How wide is the gulf between Man and Plant – if there is a gulf at all?"

Introduction

In this new series, I am going to go episode by episode through the 1970s TV show In Search Of. Why? Because I have time on my hands, and if this doesn't convince people to give me a full time job, I don’t know what will.

My cards on the table: I'm a skeptic. Note the small s. I don't go to skeptic meetings or even read a lot of skeptic literature. By skeptic, I mean I draw a pretty distinct line between 'real' and 'made up', and I try place ideas on one side of the line or the other based on how well supported they are by evidence.

By the same token, the older I get the less I care if people don't want to do things that way. Unless it's actively harmful nonsense like vaccine denial or some of the racist conspiracy stuff, I say believe what you want. A UFO kidnapped you? Cool story, bro. Think Bigfoot is out there? Off you go find him, and the best of luck to you.

So this isn't a debunking of In Search of… per se. What would be the point? The show's forty years old, and I doubt even true believers will be willing to back up many of the specific claims the show makes. I will probably argue against ideas the show presents if I think them dangerous or harmful, but I won't stoop to complaining about anything so gauche as mere factual inaccuracy.

I also don’t plan to endorse the show. It's basically drivel turned into something entertaining by the mystical alchemy which is Leonard Nimoy's voice. Occasionally, the show turns away from esoteric subjects and presents a short documentary on something more substantial. When that happens, I will judge it as I would a real documentary. Otherwise, I intend just to enjoy it as pleasant nonsense.

The Other Voices

Let's start at the beginning. I don't have access to the original Rod Serling specials that preceded the regular show, so I'm going to begin with season 1 episode 1: Other Voices. The other voices are the voices of plants. It's a slightly odd and extremely tame intro to a series best remembered for creepy stuff about swamp monsters and space aliens, but here we are: psychic plants.

The show starts with a weird noise, supposedly gleaned from plants. Leonard Nimoy assures us that there are plants everywhere. Good point, Leonard. He wonders whether plants can communicate, and goes on to wonder how they communicate and who they communicate with. Will these questions be answered? Let's find out.

We are then shown a research chemist teaching his grandchildren (? I guess) how to feel the energy of plants. We are assured that children find it easier to understand things like this, but are not given a clear idea of what 'this' is.

We skip past 'this', and return to Nimoy in the studio. He explains that there are green thumbed people and brown thumbed people. This doesn't come up again for a while, so it's weird to put it here. Nimoy questions whether the phenomenon of houseplants is a passing fad. From our position here in 2016, I think we can safely say that the fad hasn't passed yet. There are stock pictures of seed packets. I had forgotten how badly some these episodes are padded.

We then go on to something more interesting: the famous experiment about whether plants like classical music or rock music. My understanding is that similar experiments have been done many times, but I can't seem to find any sort of definite consensus on whether it's true that plants grow better to classical music. In Search of… concludes that they do.

Okay. Why not? But having made that conclusion, they take a completely unnecessary jump: that the reason plants grow differently in different musical environments is an aesthetic choice on the part of plants. Well, if my plants don't learn to like Cold Chisel, maybe they deserve to die.

Next up is a photographer, who takes Kirilian photos of plants. Now, I'm not a physicist so take this with a grain of salt, but my understanding is Kirilian photography basically involves running an electric charge through an object sitting on a photographic plate. The object gives off a gas discharge, which is usually invisible to the naked eye, but which exposes the plate, creating a picture.

It's interesting, if you're into that sort of thing, and makes for some extremely pretty photos. In the seventies, though, the idea got around that the image on the paper somehow corresponded with the mystical aura of the object being photographed. The photographer in this episode talks enthusiastically about energy patterns, then talks about his experiment in taking Kirilian photos of mutilated leaves, and then having people with a reputation as a 'green thumb' hold their hand over said leaf. Supposedly, the photo becomes brighter. If a 'brown thumb' holds their hand over the leaf, it is supposed to get darker.

Nimoy assures us that this has 'profound implications', which is certainly a nice sentiment.

Next we see a polygraph expert who runs tests on plants. Polygraphs, or lie detectors are… well, look just Google it. Basically, they don't really work, but are still used extensively in law enforcement. Interesting piece of trivia: the guy who invented the polygraph also created Wonder Woman, and he did a much better job with her.

The polygraph guy's experiment is to prove that plants feel sympathetic pain when a human is harmed. His experiment fails, but when he tries again, this time jabbing one of the production team rather than himself, he gets a reaction.

It's a good thing that this sympathetic pain doesn't go both ways, or cutting wheat would be a very painful occupation.

Next up is my favorite part of the episode. Not content with showing that plants feel our pain, the experimenter wants to proves that bacteria have 'primary perception'. If anyone ever doubts that Leonard Nimoy is a great actor, watch just how serious he gets as he explains a plan to attach a beaker of yogurt to a lie detector. The experimenter then puts antibiotics in the yogurt to kill the bacteria in another container of yogurt. Perhaps surprisingly--perhaps not--the first yogurt does not react. There's another experiment involving feeding milk to yogurt that seems to work better, but its way less cool.

Nimoy then wraps up by suggesting that psychic messages are carried by plants. For now, he says, we can only communicate with plants using machines. One day, those machines may not be necessary. It's hard to argue this point: it's 2016 now, and plant communication devices certainly seem to have become obsolete.

Best line:

Though there are many interesting lines from the plant-music woman and the Kirilian photographer (who I can't tell if he's high, or just really happy), the episode's best line comes from Nimoy:

'Certainly, there's nothing in the plant world like the human ear and mind. But perhaps there's something else. A way of hearing that doesn't involve receiving and interpreting sound waves. What we call a sound wave is merely one form of energy, but scientists know that energy takes many forms.'

'A way of listening that doesn’t involve receiving and interpreting soundwaves,' is about as meaningless a statement you can make. The line exists simply to paper over the crack between the segment suggesting that plants can literally hear and the segment that suggests that plants communate with weird auras. And yet, when Nimoy says it, it sounds like the entire friggin' Federation might collapse if you don't listen.

Wrapping up:

In Search Of… S1E1: The Other Voices.

Spookiness: 2/10, Tendentiousness: 7/10, Eccentric Interviewees: 7/10, Intrusive Electronic Music: 6/10, Nimoyness: 9/10.

Total: 32/50. Pass.

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Leonard

When I was a kid in the 1980s, I used to watch a show called 'Great Mysteries of the World'. It was just a slight repackaging of an American series from the 1970s called 'In Search Of...', a show comprised of a series of short documentaries about mysterious or unusual phenomenon, hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

I used to love it. It was as cheap as hell, and the phenomena described in the episodes were ranged from the mundane to the questionable to the 'holy crap, are you kidding?' Mostly,  they were in the third category. They were all underscored by sinister electronic background music, and Nimoy's deep, serious voice to make them sound intriguing.

If Karl Kolchak had quit writing for the newspapers and gone into TV, In Search Of... basically the show he would have made. Episodes covered things like Bigfoot, ESP, UFOs Atlantis -- the usual suspects of 1970s weirdness. They were presented with minimal skepticism and maximum nonsense. The episode on the pyramids, for example, is filled with bizarre fringe theories, balanced against a ten second interview with a real archaeologist who just looks confused and says that they're just big tombs. That's a pretty slender chain to anchor a documentary series to reality, but it's better than many episodes get.

Now here's the thing: I'm really skeptical about this stuff. I don't believe in the Yeti, or flying saucers or ESP or any of that. Oh, I love these things as fictional tropes, but tell me that they're real and I will raise my right eyebrow, like, really high. So I lost interest in the series at about the age of ten, and never saw it again until well into middle age.

Looking over it again now, I can't really bring myself to condemn the show. I should, I know. It takes a bunch of things that are basically a steaming pile of bull and does its level best to make them seem plausible. This was my problem with it as a kid: it takes unsupported ideas and makes them seem respectable.

Here's the thing though: as an adult, I've come to admire the show for doing just that. I no longer think the show's adoption of the documentary mode discourages critical thinking about crazy nonsense. I think it encourages skepticism about the documentary mode. There's a lot of serious nonsense presented as well researched, fact-checked truth-telling. In this context, seeing a bunch of people in flared jeans and fitted t-shirts rambling about swamp monsters is a timely reminder that it ain't necessarily so.

When In Search Of... was repeated on the History Channel a few years back, it came with a disclaimer at the beginning, explaining that the theories presented are not the only explanation for the phenomenon they described. I've heard a lot of people scoff at this, saying that it was a fig leaf, to protect the channel from the criticisms of skeptics. Have you seen some of the crap on the History Channel? They aren't worried about the criticisms of skeptics. No, all the disclaimer did was set In Search Of... apart from the History Channel's other nonsense. This stuff is crap, the disclaimer said. The other stuff... don't think about that too hard.

The other thing I like about the show is the range of material it presented. After it ran through the usual subjects like Loch Ness and UFO abduction it started picking less usual topics -- the Lost Dutchman Mine, the Hope Diamond, Indian Astrology or Count St Germain. It's not a good definitive resource on these topics, but it does what a good documentary should do, and gives the viewer a little taste in the hope that they go on to learn more.

So for all its many, many flaws, I don't believe that I have it in me to dislike or disapprove of the show. It's silly, it's dated, it's mostly wrong. But it's also fun, mildly scary and it serves as a reminder:  'non-fiction' is not the same as 'fact'.

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