We open on the San Andreas Fault, so full marks there. Spooky music and Nimoy talking in urgent tones. Shots of buildings and surveyors. When will the next great earthquake strike.
Yay! Disaster porn! My third favourite type of porn, after foodporn and gifs of industrial lathes.
Anyway, shots of beaches, Golden Gate Bridge, deserts, freeways. Is this California? Leonard Nimoy says ‘yes’. Having moved from his ‘earthquakes are going to kill us all’ urgency, he settles gently into a sonorous explanation of fault lines. It’s lovely and the shots of the Fault itself. I’ve heard a lot about the effects of the Fault, but I have to admit I had no idea what the Fault itself actually looked like until now — like a seam where the Earth was sewn shut or something.
And now we’re talking about an actual earthquake in San Fernando 1971 – jarring chords and a shaky footage of collapsed buildings and freeways. Nimoy points out that if the earthquake had gone on longer, two dams could potentially have collapsed. And this was caused by a minor branch of the Fault, not the main line. Yikes!
Now Nimoy is in a brown three piece suit and standing in front of a map, looking like the world’s most logical Geography teacher. He explains techtonic plates like… well, like a geography teacher, but I already used that joke. Maybe if I keep running with it it’ll get funny? Only way out is through, I guess.
Now we’re talking to Dr Tim Hall, who researched the San Andreas fault for years but whose anodyne name makes him impossible to Google. Yes, he has a beard, and he is shown measuring cracks in concrete structures, presumably caused by the Fault. Go Dr Hall!
Nimoy tells us how many people are threatened by the Fault, and then we go onto one of the most interesting things I’ve seen this show do, which is to show a sequence of helicopter shots of the Fault, moving from south to north. It’s very serious and informative, and only the tense electronic music suggests you’re watching In Search Of… instead of something they made for 1970s schools.
There’s even an extended scene showing Dr Kerry Seed cutting into some upthrust earth to use carbon dating to date past earthquakes. So science! Dr Seed points at the rings on a tree stump. Apparently, an earthquake in 1857 was so powerful it sheared off some of the tree roots, causing an unusually small growth ring for that year. Frikkin’ awesome!
Shots of desert that apparently has been rising rapidly. Surveyors at work measuring this area as it rises and falls, a phenomenon connected to serious earthquakes. Geologists in hardhats drill into the earth to measure stresses, then annotate graphs before entering information in old-timey computers.
More shots of the Fault – it’s eerily beautiful in its way. One shot shows not only the Fault, but a hilly area on one side and an extremely flat plain on the other. So cool – oh, now we see a nuclear plant near the Fault. Hm, yeah. Nimoy tells us this plant was designed to withstand the force of the San Andreas Fault, but after it was built geologists discovered another fault in its area.
A county environmental worker is interviewed and says basically what I was thinking after what Nimoy just said, but with more detail. A 1970s corporate guy working for the plant’s owners says his piece. If you guessed he says ‘we looked into it and everything’s fine’, then you guessed right. The county guy says he lives near the plant and is worried, while the corporate guy says that in an earthquake big enough to damage their plant, everyone around is basically dead anyway, so you know. Nimoy says that it’s unknown whether an earthquake at a nuclear power plant site could cause a release of radioactive material, which was probably true at the time. Of course, this side of Fukushima we know it can.
(Checking Wikipedia… and in the wake of Fukushima, Diablo Canyon is being wound down, and is expected to close 2024-25)
Moving on – San Fransisco! Mr Sulu was born there, you know. Oh, wait, we’re looking at a town outside of SF, which was hit by an earthquake in 1970. Pen moving on a seismograph. A local man in shirtsleeves talks about seeing the hills tilting and bending. Nimoy tells us that the local fault is still moving, just slowly now. Streets and houses are cracked and broken.
A system of laser beams and reflectors dots the area, showing movements in the earth. It’s super fascinating. Now some guys with backhoe working with Dr Hall to look into the Fault itself. There’s a lot of talk about predicting earthquakes in the future, which I guess we’re still working on.
Marine World! Studying animal behaviour may help us predict earthquakes. Thank goodness — I thought I was watching the wrong show. An earnest zookeeper with a 1970s porn ‘tache talks about how animals behave before a quake. To my surprise, rather than running with this, Nimoy says that there’s no known way to use this phenomenon to accurately predict a quake.
There’s talk about which types of ground are especially dangerous in a quake, then a look at a branch of a fault that ‘cuts through city after city’. Past quakes on these faults did little harm because the area wasn’t built up. Now, (1970s now, not 2010s now) they’re trying to beef up quake-resistant design.
The music is getting a little sinister and the episode is approaching the end. Are we going somewhere weird? Not yet, just a look at UCal Berkeley, where the fault is gradually tearing up their football field. Dr Bruce Bolt is a seismographer at Berkeley, and — with his tan suit, horn-rimmed glasses and obvious comb-over — possibly the squarest person on campus. He talks about the odds of a great earthquake affecting LA or SF in the next decade – he claims it’s 50/50.
Now looking at a little town called Olima, which was the epicentre of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Old timey photos illustrate Nimoy’s claim that roads shifted 20ft in Olima. Then some photos of San Francisco before after the quake – very cool. And now we’re talking about how many people that scale of earthquake would kill in today’s (ie, 1978’s) San Francisco and it’s pretty chilling – and yet delivered perfectly calmly with a minimum of scary music. That is, until Nimoy mentions the possibility of a big earthquake in the near future, and then we’re looking at news footage of fires while the music goes into full horror mode. Nimoy’s narration goes to ‘we’re going to die’ tones.
But it doesn’t last long, and we’re back to Mr Spock, Geography teacher and we close up.
Not bad in all. Really not bad. Interesting, entertaining, informative. Even the predictions that the show makes aren’t that far out, since this was less than twenty years before the terrible LA quakes in 1992 and 94 – though both were less deadly than implied.
I don’t know what else to say. I guess the weird thing about this show is that it doesn’t do bizarre stories about Bigfoot because it has to. The people who made this show – the researchers, producers, directors, camera and sound people, narrator – these were all people who knew how to make a real documentary when they tried. I think it’s that level of professionalism that sets it apart from its modern day imitators.
“I stood here and I could look out over the hills… You can see the hills rolling into each other. You know, it’s like they’re just sort of bending. The ground was moving, the house was moving, everything was sort of… everything seems to be tilting. Especially the hills, tilting toward each other.”
Actual content: 10/10, Nimoyness: 10/10, Music: 10/10, Interviews: 10/10, Research: 10/10. Overall: 50/50 — I just can’t fault it.