Judge Dylan Charles believes space creatures secretly operate the History Channel.
"Uncover the world's best kept secrets."
From the assassination of JFK to Roswell, we seem to delight in trying to show that there's more to the world than what meets the eye. Conspiracy? presents some of these theories to the audience and gives them the chance to decide for themselves if there is something far more sinister going on. Sort of.
Facts of the Case
Conspiracy?, which aired in 2004, totals 12 episodes on three discs. Each episode tackles a single historical event and presents the conspiracy theory and then the official theory of what happened in those events. There is a remarkable range in the cases presented, from UFOs to JFK to Pearl Harbor to Princess Diana.
The History Channel has a tendency to go for shock and sensationalism rather than, say, history. See UFO Hunters and their documentary on the The Lost Book of Nostradamus for examples. I was fully expecting to give Conspiracy? both barrels for yet another style over substance treatment of history. Instead, I found a balanced examination of these theories, which set the established against the theoretical.
In fact, if anything, Conspiracy? tends to balance the show in favor of the official set of events. It always gets the last word in the discussion and gets a chance to rebut all of the claims of the theorists. In some cases, this lead to such a devastating blow to the credibility of the theorists, that I felt that Conspiracy? was more guilty of wasting my time than anything else.
For example, in the episode on James Earl Ray and whether not he was the lone gunman to kill Martin Luther King Jr., the theorist, William Pepper, got his chance to talk, presenting a fairly reasonable account of what he believes actually happened. A witness claimed her lover really shot King and he confessed to the crime. In the second part of the episode, it turns out his supposed witness was taped saying she was going to falsely implicate her lover as part of a scam to get some money. Pepper also claimed that a member of the conspiracy was dead, perhaps killed to cover up the plot. It turns out the individual was alive and was none too pleased with Pepper's accusations. Pepper is shown to have used sloppy research techniques and, as James Earl Ray's defense attorney, he's not exactly unbiased. The theory is, in short, completely false, without merit, and backed up by no evidence.
For most of the episodes, this is how it went. The theorists present their case, everything seems spooky and ominous and plausible, and then they're completely blown out of the water by the evidence. Why am I watching this? Why are they showing this to me? Conspiracy? spends a lot of time and money on graphs, charts, research, and re-enactments to prove, more or less, that these theories have no merit.
There are a few episodes that are thought provoking and piqued my interest. Bobby Kennedy's assassination, for instance, was so mishandled by the Los Angeles police department that it's hard to tell what the hell happened. By the end of the episode, I was convinced that there are still unresolved questions about the assassination. That was interesting. That was not a waste of time. It was not the one-sided, lopsided debate that most of the other episodes were. See also the episode about the CIA hiring former (known) Nazis for intelligence and science work. That's not actually a conspiracy, apparently, but something the CIA really did. This made me wonder why it's included in a series called Conspiracy?.
Conspiracy? is very well-made, both in the production values and in the structure of each episode. Even if your brain isn't stimulated, you will be entertained. In spite of the myriad twisted threads in the theories, Conspiracy? manages to keep it all straight for the viewer. This is especially impressive considering that, in numerous episodes, the viewer has to wade through several retellings of the events. By clearly delineating the two sides of the argument and then ending with a conclusion that ties the whole thing together, it becomes very easy for the audience to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Since Conspiracy? was made before widescreen television became popular, it's mostly in full screen—until it gets to the re-enactments, when everything goes to wide. This gives the re-enactments a more cinematic feel and sets them apart from the rest of the show.
There are no extras, which is a shame since it's been almost five years since the original airdate. I would have liked to have seen if there have been any developments since then. On the other hand, considering how well it went for the theorists the first time around, perhaps it's better that there isn't.
Conspiracy? is a well-crafted show that gives the center stage to historians who have been often shunted off to the side. It's balanced and fair, in the amount of time it gives both sides.
The weakness is not the fault of the show itself, but rather in the theories that it presents. While I admire the dedication of the historians and researchers who have gone beyond the call of duty to delve deeper into the historical record, Conspiracy? is just one more magic bullet fired into their theories.
Judge Charles is not at liberty to give full disclosure of what happened on the night of the trial, but has declassified that Conspiracy? is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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