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’.