"Lost civilizations. Extraterrestrials. Myths and monsters. Missing Persons. Magic and witchcraft. Unexplained phenomenon. in Search of… cameras are travelling the world seeking out these great mysteries. This program was the result of the work of scientists, researchers, and a group of highly skilled technicians." - Host Leonard Nimoy
Often when old TV shows are released to DVD there's a strong desire on the part of those who watched it when it was new to revisit it, followed by great disappointment that the series isn't nearly as entertaining as one imagined. After satiating that strong initial curiosity, the show winds up gathering dust on the DVD shelf, never to be looked at again.
But in the case of in Search of… (1977-82), I was pleasantly surprised to find it as engrossing as I had remembered it. It holds up well, and with the benefit of hindsight it's now interesting in new ways also.
The program was spawned by the ‘70s craze for books, sometimes lurid and cheap documentaries, dramatic narrative films, and TV movies about the paranormal. The book and Oscar-nominated documentary based on Erich von Däniken's book, Chariots of the Gods? (1970), were enormously popular. Producer Alan Landsburg made The Outer Space Connection (1975), which further helped launch the fad and all but created a cottage industry for four-wall distributor Sunn Classics, prompting other films like In Search of Noah's Ark and The Lincoln Conspiracy. There were also dramatic adaptations like The UFO Incident (1975), a TV-movie about the alleged alien abduction of Barney and Betty Hill, and even actor-producer Jack Webb got into the act with his deliriously goofy weekly series Project U.F.O. (1978-79).
in Search of… was syndicated. In my native Detroit it aired at an odd time, late Saturday afternoons, yet it drew a large enough audience to run a very successful six years, some 144 shows in all. Watching several dozen episodes spread across its run, I was surprised at just how well I had remembered episodes I had seen only once 35-plus years ago. I was also surprised to find it very well produced for a syndicated series, back when such programs usually had tiny budgets. It literally did "travel the world" with episodes varied enough that even in its last year it hadn't fallen into a rut. You'd have thought after tackling UFOs, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster the series would quickly run out of unexplained phenomenon, but its sixth season shows are as interesting as the first season ones. The show remains impressively eerie at times and yet isn't nearly as exploitative as I thought it would be. It speculates without drawing definitive conclusions.
The Complete Series was released in boxed set form in December 2012. These single-season sets omit the boxed version's special features, namely the two films that were de facto pilots for the show, In Search of Ancient Astronauts (the 1973 network TV adaptation of Chariots of the Gods) and the original, made-for-TV In Search of Ancient Mysteries, both narrated by Rod Serling just before his untimely death. Nor do these season sets include the 2002 revival series produced for the Sci-Fi Channel and hosted by Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files). Hopefully that three-disc set will be released on its own at a later date.
The season sets, licensed by Universal to VEI, utilize what seem to be digital copies of the original syndication masters. A disclaimer tries to fob off the blame to the "anomalies of the historical footage," but the reality is the show simply has not been remastered. While they definitely show their age, with video wrinkles and other minor imperfections here and there, they don't detract from the overall viewing experience.
I'd love to know what in Search of…'s per episode budget was. For a syndicated series it's surprisingly lavish. Most episodes visit the actual locations of the supposed phenomenon: Scotland for "The Loch Ness Monster," Romania for "Dracula," Lakehurst, New Jersey, the site of "The Hindenburg Mystery," the Nazca Plain in Peru for "Ancient Aviators." For a UFO episode the producers somehow obtained permission to actually shoot inside the infamous "Hangar 18." The location filming is extremely well done for what must have been a cripplingly tight and busy shooting schedule.
For other episodes limited but acceptable recreations are staged: "Strange Visitors" and "Ghosts," for example, while shows focusing on historical events make great use of newsreel and other documentary footage. "The Hindenburg Mystery," to name one, is a great overview of the history of German dirigible development and features captivating footage from the period, but supplements it with new and invaluable interviews with surviving witnesses to that tragedy, as well as new footage of the old dirigible hangars at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
A show about "Anastasia," the woman famously claiming to be the sole survivor of Tsar Nicholas II's assassinated family, interviews the woman herself, Anna Anderson, but also includes silent Russian footage of the Tsar and his family, interviews his surviving relatives (who alternately believe or dismiss outright her claims), as well as footage from the 1956 film Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman.
The "Anastasia" show is particularly fascinating in that it's one of the few in Search of… mysteries definitively solved. DNA of remains of the assassinated Tsar, his wife and children, found decades after in Search of... left the airwaves, was tested against a lock of Anderson's hair and other medical records that conclusively prove her a fraud. It's therefore interesting to see researchers in the show making statements along the lines of, "I've studied this case my entire adult life and can state without any doubt Anna Anderson is the Grand Duchess Anastasia!"
Watching these episodes today, for almost every show I found myself Googling the names of various so-called experts, historians, or sometimes that week's phenomenon itself, curious to see what progress, if any, has been made to solve their mystery. The "Anastasia" show is one example; in another, "Daredevils," I discovered the main daredevil artist profiled died years later, not of injuries sustained in some spectacular stunt but rather in bed of ordinary cancer.
Mostly though, I was impressed by the general restraint of the series, and found that while some of its science had dated, in Search of… was mostly a serious, sincere show that, particularly in its historical or science-based episodes, honest-and-truly has real educational value. Even on the more outlandish episodes, the series stuck to its premise, voiced at the begging of every show (not by Nimoy but rather someone who sounds like writer Earl Hamner, Jr.), that it "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." The narration is heavy on open-ended phrasing like, "Then if so, why?" "If not, then what could it be?" "If there is a logical explanation, then what is it?"
This more conservative approach pays off in interesting ways. Shows like the Hindenburg episode and another on the disappearance of former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (of particular interest to this Detroiter) lean toward explanations that, even in 2013, remain the most plausible. (Static sparks in the case of the Hindenburg, that he was murdered by gangsters and his body smashed into unrecoverable pulp in the case of Hoffa.) A show on "Killer Bees" predicts their migration into the United States would occur in 1990, which is exactly what happened.
At the same time, the show is so cleverly presented as to generate a lot of thought-provoking mystery and an eeriness that often had the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up. Much of that is due to the synthesizer scoring of Laurin M. Rinder and W. Michael Lewis, pioneers, it turns out, of the Disco music craze. Synthesizer scoring today is associated with cheap horror movies but then as now the team's interesting compositions complement the sometimes-spooky imagery.
Even without his association with science fiction, mainly and obviously Star Trek, Nimoy's narration, probing and interested but emotionally detached, adds to the show's effectiveness. A few years after the series had ended I attended a Star Trek convention in which Nimoy was the Guest of Honor. During the Q&A part of the program, a fan in the crowded room where the actor was speaking asked him about in Search of…, prompting a few catcalls. Nimoy himself appeared horribly embarrassed and uncomfortably laughed off the question without really answering it. I was a bit surprised by his and the audience's reaction, for his association with the series was certainly nothing to be embarrassed about.
The first season's episodes are:
Video & Audio
VEI's full frame video transfers in Search of… look exactly like the show I remembered from the late 1970s and are probably nothing more or less than digital copies of those original transfers. A true remastering would doubtlessly be prohibitively expensive for a marginally saleable show such as this so I'm not really complaining, though I do wonder what might be possible if the original film elements still exist. (The show was probably shot in Super-16 though possibly 35mm; the murkiness of the video makes it hard to tell for sure.) The shows run 22 1/2 minutes apiece and do not appear time-compressed or edited, and some have series promos at the end, preceding the final credits. The mono audio, English only and not subtitled, is okay, and there are no Extra Features.
Not exactly Hearts and Minds or Shoah, but still very entertaining and even addictive, in Search of… is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.