The past season of the Yesterday channel and AHC channel British conspiracy documentary series Forbidden History was the most boring it has yet produced. This year’s topic selection leaned away from the outrageous pseudohistory that had marked the program since its 2013 debut as a sort of British version of America Unearthed. Instead, most of this year’s episodes revolved around twentieth century history, with episodes about Mussolini, Hitler, the Vatican, East European totalitarian governments, etc. The subject matter wasn’t of much interest to me, so I did not review the series when it aired a few weeks ago. I caught an episode on the Knights Templar in rerun this week. It first aired in July, and it exemplifies exactly how a formerly wild and crazy series went wrong
The most important way that the show has gone wrong is in its presentation of its subjects. Someone at one of its networks must have sent the show a network note about trying to be more respectable. They trimmed away much of the fringe history zaniness in favor of presenting a conventional account of their subjects with shorter and less insistent feints toward alternative ideas. In this episode, that meant that they devoted much of the narrative to a straightforward, if sensationalized, account of the fall of the Knights Templar and the accusations of heresy against them. Only occasionally did they reference, without source or evidence, allegations that the Templars carried treasure from France to Britain and America, or that they supposedly discovered the Ark of the Covenant.
Instead, most of the discussion focused on urine.
Go ahead and laugh, but I defy you to watch this episode without taking away one key point: that the Templars urinated on the Cross. The producers fed this line to each and every talking head, and they clearly asked each pundit to repeat the line. And then, in a fit of madness, perhaps born of what must have been the then-current Trump pee tape scandal, the producers used every single take, resulting in about ten different repetitions from all of the different talking heads of the exact same line about how the Templars urinated on the Cross. Now, it is true that under torture some Templar knights confessed to urination, but no evidence was ever found to substantiate the claim. Fringe history C-listers like Andrew Gough (a cut-rate Giorgio Tsoukalos), Lynn Picknett (a smarter Linda Moulton Howe), and Linda Papadopoulos (an unholy hybrid of Fox News and Ancient Aliens) all smirk their way through talk about spit and urine as though they were giddily revealing some secret truth. All of them take the Church’s account of the Templar heresies pretty much at face value and speculate wildly about what the Templar knights were “really” up to in their secret rites. The explanations are odd and bizarre. One asserted confidently that the Templars did not go “full Islamic” but probably adopted Islamic beliefs about Jesus surviving the Cross. Papadopoulos suggested that the Templar gatherings had the air of all-male fraternity hazing events, and she speculated that the excess of “testosterone” at these events led to roughhousing, and she heavily implied, perhaps in reflection of her own secret fantasies, that whenever men gather alone in groups they engage in sex games and orgies. Gough offered two views, that the Church was right and the Templars had gone “dark,” and that these “dark” rites like worshiping a severed head were really misunderstood Gnostic rites or fraternal tests, or something like that. Really, he’ll just say anything.
At the end of the hour, there wasn’t really anything new presented. Despite promising a new and different take on the Templars, the documentary approached the conventional, but was undercut by its reliance on glib and aggressively ignorant fringe historians instead of real experts, a few of which (or at least people who seemed like real experts—I didn’t get all their names to check their credentials) pop up for short intervals between the scripted logorrhea of the regular cast.
When Forbidden History started, it chronicled the adventures of onetime Top of the Pops presenter Jamie Theakston investigating historical mysteries of special interest to fringe history believers. The first seasons began episodes with Theakston presenting a topic, and he would travel the world and conduct interviews and conclude the broadcast with some milquetoast thoughts. AHC reedited episodes to replace Theakston’s voiceover with an American narrator, and I have not seen the British broadcasts of the current season to know what additional changes AHC has made. But in the episodes as they air on AHC, Theakston’s role has been minimized. While he offered some mild commentary in the Vatican episode, the Templar episode hummed along almost entirely without his participation. He conducted, so far as I saw, one interview, in England, and the rest of the show was a collection of C-list fringe history talking heads, the program’s regular cast, with a few sound bites from authors of Templar books.
The end result is a program that is more conventional, less interesting, and more repetitive than ever before. It is, ultimately, a waste of time, televisual wallpaper for people who want to watch something, and don’t really want to pay much attention to what’s on the screen. It seems strange for me to say that a show was better when it was less truthful, but if they do not want to spend the time, money, and effort to be serious and factual, they could at least be entertaining.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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