A chilling journey beyond imagination
Arthur C. Clarke has long been revered, not only as a writer of exceptional skill and foresight, but as a thinker of great thoughts. His novels, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, have carefully walked the fine line between scientific speculation and rousing space opera, never afraid to venture off into outlandish flights of imagination while staying firmly rooted in the precision of logic. With over 70 books to his credit, Clarke is one of the true purveyors of "straight" science fiction, the kind of fantasy tales with their foundations cemented in realistic technological advances and ideals. Never one to create implausible scenarios when he can extrapolate on current thinking, theories, and understanding, his work resonates with the power of possibility, of knowing that it has a true origin in reality. But outside the realm of writing, Clarke is also a respected academic, the architect of several theories that have formed the basis for such advances as global satellite communication and space exploration. While he seems irrevocably linked to Stanley Kubrick and their collaboration on that one sole "good" science fiction film, there is more to this British expatriate living in Sri Lanka than HAL 9000 and the monolith. A true Renaissance man, Clarke dabbles in computers and oceanography, as eager to explore the stars as the great undiscovered worlds under the sea.
And, interestingly enough, along with other such famous skeptics as James "The Amazing" Randi and Penn "and Teller" Gillette, Clarke has found another passion in debunking the myths and legends surrounding paranormal, psychic, and extraterrestrial phenomenon around the planet. His attempts at explaining, rationally, the reasons behind such otherworldly events as crop circles, hauntings, and psychic surgery have been featured and formed the basis for three successful television shows: Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World in 1980, Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers in 1985, and finally, with the help of the Discovery Channel, Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe in 1995. Each series scrutinized and tried to explain, in cogent terms, the seemingly unexplainable. The notion of taking on these sacred cows of sensationalism seems attractive to Clarke. Never afraid to question the science as well as the supernatural, his straightforward, calm approach to any and all subjects adds weight to what are otherwise rather cursory investigations of various curious phenomena. Now thanks to Granada and American Home Treasures, we get the opportunity to view six of the episodes from the latter, Mysterious Universe series.
All have the same basic set-up: Clarke introduces the area of investigation for the show (like zombies and voodoo) and then a disembodied female voice (that of announcer/commentator Carol Vorderman) takes over, walking us through a series of vignettes, reenactments, and interviews with the participants involved to paint a sometimes overly broad picture of the subject being explored. About 20 minutes later, Clarke returns to offer some scientific skepticism and clarification, and then the debunking begins. Explanations are attempted and frauds unveiled. At the end, Clarke has a wrap up that seems to argue both sides of the issue, but subtly pushes the "science over superstition" argument. This collection represents the more bizarre and supernatural episodes produced in the series. Other episodes revolved around historical (the pyramids) or archeological (the extinction of the dinosaurs) issues. Included are:
At Death's Door: A rather decent denouncement of the entire "life after death" concept of out of body experiences and corridors of light. The emphasis on the psychology of mortality and NASA's experiments with G-forces helps clarify the claims involved.
Zombies—The Living Dead: A genuinely creepy look at the true medical and chemical basis and process that voodoo witch doctors use to create undead slaves. Interviews with the families and creators of these poor, immobilized souls adds a very serious undertone.
A Crop of Circles: Probably the weakest of the stories presented, since there is, currently, a wealth of knowledge as to just how many, if not all, of these circles are made. The eyewitness accounts of circles appearing before their eyes are compelling, however.
Callers from the Cosmos: Call this Contact for Dummies. Features many of the clichés we've come to expect from alien abduction stories: the probing, the almond shaped eyes, the lack of public acceptance. Nothing really new offered here and a rather standard episode overall.
Into Thin Air—More Strange Vanishings: An intriguing idea, poorly explained. In essence, it's a series of interviews with people who have witnessed past and future life projections onto the plane of current existence (seeing a future house burn down or visiting a shiny new hotel on the site of a ruin). However, the entire episode plays out like goofy weirdoes seeing things. Could have been handled much better.
Spirits of Place—Hauntings and Spectres: Along with Zombies, a very good episode. There is an excellent sequence debunking "spirit photography" and the story of the haunted house and the real estate legal case it spawned (it made it all the way to a state high court) is funny and intriguing.
American Home Treasures does an excellent job with the DVD release of this title. While it would have been nice to have an entire set of all episodes from the series, what we have here is treated with dignity and care. Each segment is full screen, with a near flawless transfer. Occasionally, compression grain can be seen, but for a show shot nearly a decade ago the images are excellent. Sonically, the Dolby Digital stereo adds nothing. It is crisp and clean but not immersive at all. For special features, we are treated to several page-through articles on related subject matter. Of great interest is the list of haunted houses (each individually accessible), the ten most convincing stories of UFO sightings, and a telling history of voodoo, both as a ritual and a religion. About the only thing missing from this disc is information on Clarke himself. While the opening intro details his writing of 2001 and invention of the communications satellite, there is no other discussion of his life's work.
Still, this is a good DVD presentation of a show that is less sensational than In Search of but occasional as generic as Unsolved Mysteries. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe may not be as probing or in-depth as an issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, but it is often very illuminating. And enjoyable.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: American Home Treasures
• Essays on Haunted Places
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