Reboots are the biggest trend in entertainment right now, with a mixed bag of results. In Search Of is a program conceived in sin, so to speak, tainted by the elements of its own DNA. Ages and ages ago, a German film adaptation of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods was nominated for an Oscar, and TV producer Alan Landsburg and Twilight Zone host Rod Serling recut it for American television in 1973 as In Search of Ancient Astronauts. The special attracted 28 million viewers on NBC and spawned 250,000 news sales of Chariots in the first 48 hours after broadcast, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. It was the most successful ancient astronaut TV broadcast ever. After a series of such specials promoting credulous views of UFOs and ancient astronauts, Landsburg decided to produce an ongoing syndicated series to be hosted by Serling as a spinoff from the specials. Serling died before the show went to air, and Leonard Nimoy stepped in as the host of In Search Of… which aired from 1977 to 1982. The new series spread beyond ancient astronauts to cover the full range of subjects generally classified as “mysterious,” from cryptozoology to UFOs, from Hitler to Nostradamus, and from poltergeists to Atlantis.
In 2009, the History Channel adapted Chariots of the Gods anew as a two-hour special called Ancient Aliens. From the success of that special, and a subsequent test series of two-hour specials, History commissioned a sequel, first known as Ancient Aliens: The Series and then Ancient Aliens, which has aired continuously since 2010, delivering more episodes than In Search Of…’s 146-episode run and a consistent audience of around two million viewers. Unable, however, to find a successful companion series to attract similar ratings, the network has now turned to the original Chariots spinoff in the hope of recapturing the magic of the old show, which the History Channel and its sister network A&E had spent much of the 1990s and 2000s airing in reruns.
In short, the new In Search Of (without the ellipses) is twice the bastard offspring of Chariots of the Gods, which seems to mean that it is the product of a weird incest that makes the book both its grandfather and its cousin. Naturally, the episode made available to critics for preview is about aliens.
The new series is hosted by Hollywood actor Zachary Quinto, who played Mr. Spock, a role originated by Leonard Nimoy, in the J. J. Abrams Star Trek reboots, taking over the role from Leonard Nimoy. He again fills Nimoy’s shoes in serving as the host of In Search Of, though here the shoes are size too big.
Last year the producers of In Search Of invited me to appear on an upcoming show about Atlantis, but I declined their offer because it would have required me to travel to Africa to stand next to Quinto, and I was not able to make the journey halfway around the world for one day’s work.
Quinto’s version of In Search Of opens with a disclaimer stating that experiments depicted on the show should not be attempted at home. This is a startlingly different opening than the original, which bluntly admitted (to protect its affiliate broadcast stations in the era of the Fairness Doctrine) that the series was “based on theory and conjecture” and that it offered only “possible explanations but not necessarily the only ones.” The new version dispenses with even this fig leaf. There will be very little warning that the controversial topics discussed have other explanations than those suggested here. While scientists appear on the show, no skeptical viewpoints made it to air.
The show has beautiful establishing shots of monuments and natural wonders, though the best shots appear to be stock footage. (I viewed this on a screener, and some stock shots may be replaced before the show airs.) The rest of the videography is competent but no different than your average cable documentary, though more dramatically lit. The score seems to have been composed for the series rather than taken off the shelf. The production values seem to be a few degrees higher than those of most comparable shows about paranormal mysteries, such as Ancient Aliens, but the show also seems a bit overproduced. The graphics are beautiful but distracting, particularly when they intrude around the edges of photographs, making them difficult to see. I also disliked the blurring used around the edges, which again compromised visibility and legibility. The music is suitably eerie but never stops, and it detracts from the spoken words. (The final sound mix may be different than my screener, and to be fair, the original In Search Of was rather saturated with synthesized ’70s sounds.) The lighting crew must have purchased blue gels in bulk because every scene is bathed in a silvery-blue light that lends an unearthly hue to the proceedings, but which calls attention to the artificiality of the program. There is a good deal of TV fakery involved, including cutaways to fake “top secret” documents that have been stamped “TOP SECRET” in absurd ways. They are clearly props, and unnecessary.
Quinto’s voiceover narration seems to be aiming to echo that of Nimoy, to a sometimes uncanny degree. He modulates his voice to the steady monotone and elongated vowels Nimoy used in the original, quite different from Quinto’s unscripted speaking voice, and I will confess that I found it a bit distracting, particularly since that style of narration—the so-called “voice of God”—is several decades out of date. Oddly, the affectation emulating Nimoy declines as the program progresses, and it seems almost as though it were an intentional choice given Quinto’s connection to Nimoy. The writing of the show, however, lacks the fluidity and humanity that Nimoy and his writers offered. There is no poetry here, only a workmanlike prose. Even Ancient Aliens can occasionally muster poetry.
But where Quinto differs most from Nimoy is that the modern version of In Search Of is explicitly framed around Quinto and Quinto’s self-described personal quest to investigate the supernatural. Quinto is on screen nearly the whole time and is the focal point of the show. At regular intervals, Quinto talks to an unseen producer in candid asides and unscripted discussion, as though this were a confessional from Real Housewives of Outer Space. While Nimoy did standups and spoke directly to camera in his series (and, memorably, participated more fully in episodes of special interest to him), those episodes were framed in documentary style rather than in reality-show format.
The show opens with a scattershot discussion of various branches of what we might loosely term ufology, including alien abduction, the ancient astronaut theory, government investigations of UFOs, and conspiracy theories. Naturally, a news peg tying the investigation to last year’s New York Times story about the Pentagon’s UFO program serves to make the topic relevant. The first segment sees Quinto interview a man, Kyle Bond, who claims to have experienced an alien abduction in childhood that changed his life. The show gives the man a polygraph test, which is worthless on two levels. First, polygraph tests are scientifically invalid, and, second, even if they had merit, they could only tell us whether Bond believed he had been abducted by aliens.
Quinto also visited SETI to discuss the scientific search for alien radio signals. Various men talk with Quinto about how the Green Bank, West Virginia telescope works and what they hope to find, but the swelling dramatic music can’t quite overcome the fact that the hourlong show delivers information more slowly, and less of it, than the original In Search Of did in its half-hour format. Reader, I was bored. If it were not for the In Search Of brand name, this program would be interchangeable with any other cable TV documentary series. It is less fun than Expedition Unknown, less rich in information than Ancient Aliens (!), and way too enamored of its star.
Later, Quinto talks to a chemist, Steve Colbern, who claims to have analyzed his own extraterrestrial implant, which he extracted from his own toe. He tells Quinto that the implant was made of meteoric iron, and he alleges that the scrap of metal was a “device” that had attached to his nerves to monitor his brainwaves and transmit radio waves to space aliens. Quinto brings the remains of the implant to an independent lab for reanalysis. The independent laboratory determined that the implant contained no unearthly material and was probably just a splinter Colbern stepped on. The “experiencer” disagreed and alleged that the splinter was giving off radio signals. Quinto called the results “inconclusive.” The show does not inform viewers that Colbern is a regular on the UFO talk show and lecture circuit.
Quinto also interviews Dough Vakoch, who is sending radio signals to the stars in the hope that an alien will hear them, and we hear from David Brin of SETI that the staff at SETI are angry with Vakoch because his work might bring dangerous aliens to Earth.
Another abductee gets interviewed, and Quinto then reenacts an alien abduction with a harness and a blindfold so he can “feel” what it’s like to be lifted in a tractor beam. This segment is silly, and there is an improbable assumption that the “feelings” that “experiencers” claim to have experienced are, in fact, what really happened. The show might have done well to have a psychologist or other scientist on hand to note that these “feelings” are similar to those of sleep paralysis and dream states in the moments surrounding falling asleep or waking.
It is useful to compare this episode of the new In Search Of to the first episode of the original show’s third season, “UFO Captives,” which covered the same material, namely people who believe they were abducted by aliens, right down to the use of a lie detector to validate their claims. The difference in tone is immediately apparent, as is the original show’s focus on the abductees rather than the host. The original show is humane, interested in the human side of the story. It is elegant and eloquent, even though it is clearly biased in favor of the weird and wild. Alan Landsburg knew how to make audiences care about the people involved, regardless of whether the audience shared their belief in UFOs and abductions. The new series is slick but cold. It doesn’t care about the people it processes, only how to package them into a product. Its focus is on Zachary Quinto, whose personal journey we are supposed to identify with, presumably because he is a celebrity.
“Science is far from conclusive,” Quinto intones ominously near the end. This may have been a mission statement for every version of In Search Of, but here it sounds less like a call to adventure and more like a threat. By the time the show ended, I felt like it was a weightless trifle. It contained very little information, an unfortunate credulity, and a fixation on its host above its guests or its subject.
In Search Of (1 hour) debuts July 20 at 10 PM ET / 9 CT on the History Channel following the 9 PM return of Ancient Aliens from its summer hiatus.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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