B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S03E02 Tornadoes

Disaster porn is a fairly minor theme in In Search Of… but it’s always well done. Whatever else you can say about the show, they had some great researchers and access to substantial film archives. The episodes about hurricanes and earthquakes were pretty impressive, so how does this episode on Tornadoes stack up?

Storm’s a-brewin’.

Open on shifting clouds. Leonard Nimoy, with the same gravity as if he was delivering the prologue to Henry V, explains how cold air meets warm air. Then… well, footage of a tornado. It’s beautiful footage, accompanied by dramatic chords and Nimoy proclaiming the tornado the most deadly of all storms.

I think this one might be good.

A little Midwest town. People coming out of church. Going to a parade. Fields of corn. Aerial shots of towns. But suddenly storms! Thunderbolts and lightning! Very very frightening! Huge tornadoes appear on the horizon. The narration stops, letting the sights and sounds of the storm do all the work. It’s a little disappointing when Nimoy returns with some statistics.

Shots now of destroyed buildings. Twigs driven through steel plate. Now we’re talking to a tornado survivor in Kansas, who wears a trucker cap and aviator sunglasses. I’m decrying his lack of seventiesness, when we move on to talk to a guy with long hair, sideburns and pointy glasses. Next a cop in Smoky Bear hat.  They give very phlegmatic, matter of fact testimony in flat accents. Their stories are kind of horrifying but this is offset by their dry recitation.

Back in the studio, Nimoy sits next to two televisions in a darkened room. He looks like he’s auditioning to be a Bond villain. He puts down hurricanes as useless, crappy storms unlike the mighty tornado. Burn on hurricanes!

We’re now with Dr Ernest Agee, who’s studying tornadoes. We have a look inside his tornado simulator, which is just awesome. He makes all shapes of tornadoes in it, and then knocks over a model city. Boo-yah! Science FTW!

Now with the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Oklahoma. Best named institution ever! Anyway, they’re trying to come up with an effective tornado warning system. Lots of huge 1970s computers at work. Grad students who are clearly itching to run off to an ELO concert. An important meeting, with information displayed on a whiteboard with an overhead projector. A radio dish contacts a satellite and sees a thunderstorm – ‘parent to the tornado’. A bunch of guys in polo shirts watch the weather radar, silently dreaming of their next Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Cars on a country road, as a tornado warning is broadcast. A huge boxy 1970s police car trundles along, probably burning enough gas to fund OPEC single handed. Its speakers blare warnings of the coming storm. The Storm Laboratory nerds run to their van, carrying equipment and drive towards the storm.

It’s just like that Helen Hunt movie – you know, As Good as it Gets. Only instead of driving into an emotional storm, they’re driving into an actual storm, just like that movie Twister.

The head meteorologist says that the point is to film the tornado in order to track moving debris and from that estimate wind speed. Tracking aircraft take off too. You know what? This is what those other disaster porn episodes lacked. Heroes. Look at this, a bunch of guys who look like they should be having heated arguments about Battle Beyond the Stars, riding towards the storm that everyone else is fleeing. Go, my good nerds! Go!

Visuals are wonderful. Cuts between the van, the meteorologist, clouds in motion, the jet plane… The music has lost its sinister tone and takes on a triumphant air. Lots of radio chatter between the plane, van and base. 1970s computer graphics. It is a tornado! The music becomes tense. A town lies in the tornadoes path! Can the townspeople be warned?

Holy crap, this is genuinely exciting. It’s all done with clever editing and musical cues, but it totally works. Edge of my goddamn seat here.

But a farm is smashed to rubble. Bummer. But the people are alive, including a farmer in a trucker hat and sunglasses and a flat delivery. No, a different one. He talks about his dead livestock. His wife, who’s a little more animated, talks about sheltering in the cellar with her baby. Both of these people are so phlegmatic it hurts. The wife points out that the damage to the house doesn’t matter, because it can be rebuilt with income from the farm, so it’s the damage to the farm that hurts the most.

Phlegmatic as hell.

Helicopter shot of the ruined farm. Nimoy points out that it could have been worse. People could have died if not for advanced warnings. He goes on to praise the National Severe Storms Laboratory and there life saving efforts. Well done, folks! Have a game of Pong on me. You earned it.

Now we’re back in the studio, and after that reassuring segment about early warning, Nimoy is trying to scare us again. But can we stop tornadoes before they stab us and our pets? Dr Edwin Kessler of the Severe Storms Laboratory thinks that maybe we can turn heavy rains into moderate rains. But probably not.

So, enjoyed this episode. Like I’ve said before, everyone remembers this show for the monsters and aliens, but sometimes it just served up a damned good, factual episode with a side order of drama. And honestly, this is one of the best.

Best Quotes

“Miles away, the skies only hint at what is to follow.” – Nimoy

“Because of the really astonishing advances of the recent decades in areas of science and technology, particularly in America, we’ve tended to look to our science and technology for the answer to many problems for which science and technology are not well suited.” – Dr Kessler

Summing up

Drama: 9/10, Music: 9/10, Nimoyness: 8/10, Actual information: 8/10, Phlegmatic Midwesterners: 9/10. Overall: 43/50. High Distinction

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B.G. Hilton - Author