B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S01E07 Earthquakes

Another mundane episode, it seems, but it begins with 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 would be if taken from land. It begins with something utterly mundane – two dogs sitting on the shore, the sort of tedious 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.

Actual real phenomenon. Has the show lost its way?
Actual real phenomenon. Has the show lost its way?

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. 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.

Nimoy intones some stuff about ancient legends, but then goes on to give a pretty decent high-school science level explanation of plate tectonics. This speech is played over footage of volcanoes and magma. Then we home in on the San Andreas fault. The footage is impressive, and includes a shot of a central Californian town  whose streets and fences are warped by the fault. It’s all good documentary making stuff, humanising huge impersonal issues.

This has got to go wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?

Then the music starts to get a little spooky, and we see an experiment showing that rock under pressure bends only up to a point, after which it breaks. From here we move rather unexpectedly to an extremely awesome accidental film clip of an earthquake. An earthquake hit southern California in the 1930s, shaking the set of a WC Fields film in mid shot. Some people panic, but Fields keeps his cool and encourages people to evacuate calmly. Less fun is footage of the epicentre of that quake at Long Beach.

Next up, some adorable 1970s computers which are used to analyse stresses on the fault, and then an interview with a very nerdy looking geologist. We learn a little about how these stress analyses work. If it wasn’t for the creepy electronic music, I’d wonder what show I was watching. Nimoy gets to suggesting that a massive California quake is immanent, but I’m pretty sure geologists are still saying that today, so I don’t know if I can even call it sensationalism.

We’re back to the footage of the ’64 Alaska earthquake, only a longer version this time. I’m not sure if all the footage comes from the same source, since the camera seems to shift POV more often than you’d expect if the camera operator was stuck on a ship. Nimoy makes the point that much of the damage comes not from the quake itself, but indirectly from a tidal wave and from burst gas mains and oil tanks causing fires.

A system for testing the San Andreas Fault is shown in detail. Radio telescopes on either side of the Fault are focused on the same quasar, and minute differences in the timing of the quasar bursts are compared. That’s kind of awesome, and it’s followed by the ‘some animals can detect a quake’ thing, which seems a lot more like the In Search Of… we know and love, but we don’t go into this idea too deeply.

With that, we’re back with the scientists, this time mechanically simulating earthquakes on model buildings in order to improve building standards. We get back to good old In Search of… vagueness when Nimoy claims that this will ‘possibly save countless lives’, but its not much to go on.

Between this and the bees last week, I’m a little disappointed… wait. What’s this? Footage of space? Talk about grand conjunctions? Oh, do go on, Mr Nimoy! He claims that in 1982, all nine planets will form a straight line on one side of the sun — a gross exaggeration of the Grand Conjunction of 1981.

Nimoy cites ‘two British astronomers’, who claim that this conjunction will something something gravity, something something magnetism, and so something something EARTHQUAKES! Huge solar flares and solar radiation will mess up our atmosphere like it was a 97 pound weakling. Weather catastrophies, chaos, dogs and cats living together!

This conjunction could set off the San Andreas fault – “if this theory holds up.” The music swells as we linger on the damage that could be done to San Francisco. Shots of the city, cable cars, Golden Gate Bridge, loving descriptions of how many people would die in skyscrapers. Oh, look! Chinatown! Yeah, that’ll go too. It’ll become “a mass graveyard”.

Shots of random San Franciscans, talk of gas leaks, highways destroyed. Is that Haight-Ashbury? Not sure, but whatever it is, it’s gone too… unless we listen to earthquake sensing cockroaches. Apparently.

Given that it’s 2016 and clearly San Francisco didn’t get smushed in 1982, I think we might forgive the filmmakers for their disaster porn. We should write it off as a tone poem/spoken word art piece about the fragility of modern life or something. It’s actually a somewhat optimistic thing that probably many of the people shown in the ‘face in the crowd’ shots of San Francisco are alive and well today.

As I said last week, there is a very clear split (a fault, if you will) in the production of the show. On the one hand, there seems to be a professional desire to make a serious documentaries. The other side is pure batshittery. It makes an intriguing mix sometimes.

Oh, yeah, and Nimoy sums up. Earthquakes bad, you probably live on a fault line, keep watching the ground.

Best quote

From Nimoy, and actually both nicely written and basically true:

“Like the restless cloud of a gathering storm, the Earth itself is alive and ever changing.”

Summing up:

Strong factual start: 7/10, Preposterous end: 6/10, Intrusive electronic music: 8/10, Stock footage: 9/10, Nimoyness: 6/10. Overall: 36/50, Credit.

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B.G. Hilton - Author