Cold open on Easter Island, many, many miles from the Atlantic. Nimoy proclaims the famous statues a mystery, which they were. I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that they were still a big mystery in the 1970s, though these days we've got a decent idea of how and when they were made. But that's not what gets me. What gets me is the In Search Of… three step. 1: Identify something as unexplained. 2: Assume that 'unexplained' is 'inexplicable'. 3: Explain it anyway. It's not good science, but damn it's fun to watch!
Now Maya (or maybe Olmec, I'm no expert) statue heads, stand a distance from where they were carved. See the connection yet? Macchu Piccu and Californian petroglyphs, the Cerne giant (I think) and some other big statues. These indicate advanced technology, Nimoy says, which I guess is true for certain values of 'advanced'. Now, remember a few weeks ago when anything that might have been tricky for old-timey people to accomplish was actually the doing of aliens? Turns out it was actually the doing of Atlanteans. ...continue reading "In Search Of… S01E10 Atlantis"
Ahem. I'm sorry, let's start again. We open with a rather uninspired monologue about seeking life in the stars, but combined with the music and some lovely astronomical footage it becomes quite interesting. It's easy to be mean about In Search Of's visuals sometimes, but I like this old timey footage of stars and planets. CGI has made contemporary documentary makers lazy. Shots of space all look like bloody video games.
Now a lovely tone poem about the birth of the sun. Roughly correct science, surprisingly suitable electronic music and Nimoy's voice. I'm loving this so far, and we haven't even got to the Martians. Nimoy's voice acting is different here to usual. Often, he's doing this sort of 'voice of authority' thing, intoning nonsense to make it seem reasonable. Here, he sounds more like he's trying to convince. I wish I knew more about Nimoy the man, because I find myself wondering how much he felt he had a personal stake in this discussion of space research and exploration. After all, like it or not, he was deeply entangled in public perception of space science, even though his contribution to this field went no further than Spock. ...continue reading "In Search Of… S01E09 Martians"
Now we're talking! Fakey-Egyptian music, check! White women in diaphanous nighties, check! "Legend says…" check. "Coincidence… or curse?" Check, check, check! All right, now we're cooking with gas! Mummy's curse FTW!
Another mundane episode, it seems, but it begins with what seems like the strongest opening we've seen so far. It's black and white amateur footage of an earthquake in Alaska in 1964. Since it was taken by sailors on a freighter, it’s much steadier than similar footage taken from land would be. It begins with something utterly mundane – two dogs sitting on the shore, the sort of dull thing that home movie enthusiasts used to love. The all at once, the sea goes crazy and there's huge waves everywhere… it's pretty cool, and it sets the topic and tone wonderfully.
This use of file footage is one of the most effective aspects of this episode. No longer having to rely on crappy reenactments and lingering shots of rocks, the producers can show drama directly, rather than having to imply it. Unfortunately, the footage they show is a mix of actual news footage and clips of simulated earthquakes from old movies, though to be fair Nimoy does acknowledge this. ...continue reading "In Search Of… S01E07 Earthquakes"
I've written before that In Search Of… is an odd duck of a show, because while mostly it's about wonderful, glorious nonsense, sometimes it comes down to Earth and looks at something actually real. This episode looks at killer bees, while next episode is about earthquakes, and then we're back to the Mummy's Curse in episode S01E08.
After the last few weeks, this episode is almost strange in its absence of leading questions and abundance of actual names, places and dates. I'm going to come right out and say that I don’t know enough about the history of Killer Bees to tell how accurate any of this is, but like I say it's straightforward enough that anyone could check the show's facts if they wanted to. ...continue reading "In Search Of… S01E06 Killer Bees"
Yeah, you heard right! Friggin' Bigfoot. The big kahuna himself, Sasquatch, the mysterious ape-creature of North America. Episodes arguing that 'hey, maybe we can kinda-sorta talk to plants' are all well and good, but I like my nonsense like my coffee: strong, hairy and hard to capture on film.
This is one of my favourite mysteries. Why? It's super easy to solve! The solution is, there's nothing spooky about the Bermuda Triangle at all. It's a huge area of sea on a number of important international trade routes. Ships and planes get lost there, but not disproportionately to the amount of traffic the area gets. No problem, no mystery, no solution required.
Ancient Aviators is a little more fun than the last one. It is also the most fact-free, supposition heavy episode so far. Did humanity invent flight earlier than we believe? the episode asks. Well, if we did, this episode doesn't do much to prove it.
We begin with the Nazca Plains, and Nimoy waxing lyrical about the Nazca Lines, a series of line-figures on the desert floor. Now, these lines are really interesting, showing an extraordinary ambition and artistry of the people who drew them, but we're not really interested in that. We're told that the lines of which these figures are comprised look like runways and that therefore we can assume that something landed there. ...continue reading "In Search Of… Review: S1E3 Ancient Aviators"
Now we get into the racism. Pity. I saw the title Strange Visitors and it made me think of aliens. You know, like the opening to the old Superman show that proclaimed him a 'strange visitor from another world.' But straight up, we get into some very unamusing nonsense.
"How wide is the gulf between Man and Plant – if there is a gulf at all?"
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.
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.