In 1973, television producer Alan Landsburg made an hour long TV documentary called In Search Of Ancient Astronauts. It was based on the highly popular yet poorly evidenced book Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Von Daniken was convinced ancient humans were just too dumb and unskilled to be able to build and erect the massive structures and statues they left behind. How could those primitive peoples have done it without the help of space aliens?
Not long after the release of von Daniken’s tome of pseudoscience and pseudohistory, PBS’s program Nova examined his ideas. Nova presented much more logical and consistent with the evidence explanations. You can watch the entire program here. The video quality isn’t great, but the science is.
I’ll let Nova cover the skeptical angle, while I reminisce about a favorite TV series of my youth.
Landsburg produced two more hour long pseudoscience programs in 1975: In Search of Ancient Mysteries and The Outer Space Connection. All three programs featured Rod Serling as narrator and were popular enough to lead to the syndicated program: In Search Of…
Serling was set to be the narrator and host, but his death made his availability questionable, so Leonard Nimoy stepped in. I can’t think of a better second choice. Nimoy’s voice, look, and demeanor were perfect. He gave the show a sense of dramatic gravitas that few other actors could. Serling might have done well, but I think good ole Mr Spock was lightning in a bottle.
It was April 1977 when In Search Of… first aired and for the next five years, Landsburg and Nimoy would set the template for the many, many pseudoscience promoting programs that followed. The writing style, the tone of narration, and the kind of music featured on the show became that template. The topics covered were the typical mysteries: Bigfoot, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, psychic powers, etc. Everything was presented with as little regard to science as possible, while dressing it up as though there was science being done. The mysteries must be preserved.
And I loved it!
Yes, I was a kid then and pretty naive. I believed it all. The show thrilled and scared me. I thought ghosts might visit me in the night. If I was walking through the woods, I was certain bigfoot was following me. Right there! See it? Oh, that’s just a dead tree. No! Behind the dead tree!! Ahhhh! Run!
Not all of the shows were paranormal in theme. There were shows about Jack the Ripper, DB Cooper, Carlos the Jackal, Vincent van Gogh, Eva Braun, and Jim Jones. The Jim Jones show was actually a pretty good little documentary covering Jones’ rise and fall. The show was produced less than three years after the murders and mass suicide that brought Jonestown to an end. There were interviews with people who had been involved in Jones’ cult. They gave an inside account of how his church had started with such promise, but its leader’s paranoia and God complex became too much to sustain. There were even people interviewed who were living in the camp and escaped the day of the tragedy in November 1978. It’s well done and truly fascinating.
In 2012, the entire series was made available on DVD. I splurged and bought it. The set includes the three shows with Rod Serling and the brief reboot series from 2002 featuring Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files’ Assistant Director Skinner). I’ve rewatched the entire original series and I watched the Serling shows. I haven’t watched the 2002 reboot. No offense to Pileggi, but he’s no Rod Serling or Leonard Nimoy.
Since the show had gone off the air, I have become a skeptic. I no longer believe many of the things I did as a kid. I recognize the evidence presented on In Search Of… was very flimsy. As I watched the shows again, I kept reacting skeptically to what was being presented. “Oh, come on! Atlantis didn’t exist! Plato made it up!” “Yeah, great anecdote. Where’s the evidence?” “That’s a device to talk to ghosts? It looks an old phonograph with some surplus electronic doo-dads and some Christmas lights tied to it.”
I have plenty of favorite moments, but I’ll only lay one on ya.
In the second episode of season two, the show profiles the 18th century gentleman Count of Saint-Germain or, the more ominously named, the “man who would not die.” You see, this Count was a worldly gentleman, clearly an educated man who was said to speak several languages, each so well he fooled natives. He would tell stories of historic events that were so intimate and detailed people believed he was there. How could he have been? He looks to be only 40 years old, but could he actually be hundreds of years old? How could he tell such detailed stories, if he hadn’t been involved? (Geez, had those people never read fiction? “Oh, my! Hogwarts is described with such detail. JK Rowling must have been there! The wizarding world is real!”)
The Count also never said where he was from. This led to an awesome Leonard Nimoy moment. In all seriousness, with no hint of a snicker, but with that Spock eyebrow lift at the appropriate moment, Nimoy speculated, “But where was he actually from? Portugal? Egypt? (Cue eyebrow!) Atlantis?”
Sure. Atlantis. Why not? Why not Asgard? Frostbite Falls, MN? Ceti Alpha V??
Each show had the following disclaimer:
“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”
My skepticism has led me to giving that a little rewrite:
“This series presents information based mainly on guesses and lots and lots of conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some improbable explanations, but not necessarily the actual ones, to the mysteries we will monger.”
But, I still love it!
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