B.G. Hilton – Writer

In Search Of… S01E09 Martians

Martians! Squeeee! Maaaartiaaaaans!

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.

Science? Science!
Science? Science!

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 playing Spock.

As an aside, in these reviews, I often say ‘Nimoy’ when I mean ‘the Narration’, which is a little unfair. I really don’t know what Leonard Nimoy thought about any of this, whether he was a true believer or just in need of a pay-cheque. And yet it’s hard to separate him from what he’s saying, if only because he says it so damn well.

Anyway, Nimoy gives a lecture on space research while standing in front of a space probe. Then, one of those wonderful In Search Of gear-switches, and we’re watching Georges Melies’ surreal silent film A Trip to the Moon, complete with tinkling piano accompaniment. Then we’re looking at the astronomer Percival Lowell.

Rhyme? Reason? Pteewey!

Lowell’s biographer talks about Lowell’s belief that lines on Mars were canals, and that these canals were signs of intelligent life. (Left out is the role of the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli, but that’s not an unreasonable omission if they’re trimming for length). Nimoy notes that these canals were in fact illusions, but declares Lowell correct on other matters. I’m intrigued.

Lowell’s biographer points out that Lowell believed that Mars had an ocean at one point but this dried away. He worried that the same thing might happen on Earth. Nimoy wonders whether a Martian scientist might have found a way to warn everyone. Dun dun dun!

There’s more ‘the cosmic ballet continues’ footage, and damn but it looks good. Then we’re taking to Jet Propulsion Lab worker Harold Klein who really looks like he needs a nap, the poor guy. He talks about Lowell’s theory, though he makes it clear that there’s not enough information at (1970s) present to be sure of it.

Next up is Gerard Soffen, who’s described as a Mars geologist, but a Google search reveals… Holy crap! He actually was a highly regarded Mars geologist! Take it away, Dr Soffen! Soffen says that there was a lot of water on Mars at one point. He talks about the origin of life on Mars and Earth and wonders whether they share the same origin.

Next the Viking probes, sent from Cape Kennedy to Mars in the ’70s. Nimoy gives an extraordinarily poetic elegy to the lander over footage of the launch and comically old-timey NASA computers. Then animation of the lander uh, landing. Soffen talks about Mars as a ‘sister planet’ to Earth, and therefore the most likely to support something we’d perceive as life. This is really cool. Also, close ups on Soffen reveal he needs a nap, too. This was an exciting time in space exploration, but I guess also a sleepless time.

Klein talks cautiously about the data from the landers, talking about ‘very active surface chemistry’ on Mars. That could mean life, I guess, but not necessarily. We see a mock-up Viking lander manipulating rocks, which is nothing short of awesome.

Then Leslie Orgel – the third real, actual scientist to be interviewed this week – says that the Viking experiments were inconclusive in proving that there was life on Mars. Klein talks about the possibility that there was once a technological civilization on Mars, but points out the vast difficulties such a civilization would have faced erasing all evidence of their passing from the geological record. An unthinkably massive quake would be necessary to explain the absence of visible remains.

Nimoy asks whether there was an ancient civilization on Mars, so utterly destroyed that nothing at all remains. He concludes that we don’t know, which is a surprisingly sensible conclusion. Then he wonders whether climate change could affect Earth as it did Mars.

Oh, 1970s! You’re adorable! Tragically adorable!

Nimoy goes on to talk about the effects of pollution and how scientists were already wondering how badly we’d messed up the atmosphere and concludes that the ‘effects of Man’s tampering can only be guessed at.’

These days,  we know that ‘Man’s tampering’ has been devastating but doing something about it would be hard, so basically we’re going to die. Way to bum me out, Spock.

Then we’re talking about nuclear testing, for some reason, which leads to some cool stock footage. Nimoy. Puzzling gear change to footage of the US South West, and reiteration of the idea that Mars is the most likely place to have life similar to ourselves — and then basically dismissing the work of the Viking scientists* by wondering if they missed something, because Martian civilization would be too different to our own.

We’re eighteen minutes into this. To paraphrase Daenerys Targaryen, “where are my Martians?”

(Aside – MS Word spellcheck recognises ‘Daenerys’ and ‘Targaryen’ as real words, but there’s a red squiggle under ‘Nimoy’. Go figure.)

Nimoy wonders whether the Martians, aware of their fate, abandoned their planet. There’s a cool picture of some interplanetary arcology. Then Nimoy says ‘Viking may be a step in the return voyage’, and now I see where we’re going with this. Finally! Some real bullshit.

Soffen talks passionately about the Viking program as a milestone of human history. Eventually we will engineer Mars to be habitable and live there. It’s a little sad to hear this, the wonderful techno-optimism of the 1970s. The idea that we’ll get so good at making atmospheres do what we want that we can live anywhere is looking increasingly unlikely considering how little we can do in a positive sense with regards to our own atmosphere.

Then Nimoy steps in to wonder whether making Mars habitable will simply be ‘paying back an old account’. Then spreading to the stars again. Mr Spock says so. Mr Spock! Now we stop suggesting, and come right out and ask whether our civilization was somehow an offshoot of a long-missing Martian civilization.

I’m almost inclined to ignore the handful of lines ‘we are the Martians’. They seem thrown into the mix just for the sake of form. Mostly this is a quirky but not awful little vignette about the Viking missions of the mid-1970s. The technological optimism of the scientists is almost sad to behold, because I can actually see why they thought some sort of sci-fi interplanetary civilization was just around the corner.. Old timey optimism can be the most heartbreaking of things. Read the writings of pacifists from 1912, or ‘the Internet will set us free’ enthusiasts from the 1990s and you get that same heavy ‘what might have been’ feeling.

Meh, I’m depressed now. Wrapping up.

Best Line

By Nimoy: “In the nose cone is a machine of ingenious artifice. It is called ‘Viking’. Men have learned to extend their intelligence beyond the confine of their fragile bodies into icy space and onto unknown worlds.”

Summing up

Stock footage: 10/10, Electronic music: 10/10, Nimoyness: 10/10, Sad optimism of bygone days: 10/10, Actual Martians: 0/10. Overall: 40/50. Distinction.

* By ‘Viking scientists’, I mean scientists and engineers who worked on NASA’s Viking program, as opposed to scientists who row longboats and wield axes.

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