Update! Appellate Judge David Ryan solves the "when is Unsolved Mysteries coming out on DVD" mystery, and talks to aliens. Aliens who, in a twist, nasally probed him. Or so he claims under hypnosis.
Our reviews of Unsolved Mysteries: Bizarre Murders (published July 20th, 2005), Unsolved Mysteries: Ghosts (published October 27th, 2004), Unsolved Mysteries: Miracles (published December 22nd, 2004), and Unsolved Mysteries: Psychics (published May 4th, 2005) are also available.
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For over a decade, Unsolved Mysteries was one of the unsung success stories of television. Originating as a series of specials on NBC, it was turned into an economically low-budget TV show that achieved remarkably strong and consistent ratings, presaging the era of cheap "reality television" that we are currently enduring. Combining mysterious stories of disappeared persons, scary monsters, UFOs, and paranormal phenomenon, inexpensive but quality recreations, spooky incidental music, and the warm and reassuring narrative voice of Robert Stack (The Untouchables, Airplane!), it was a simple formula that worked astoundingly well.
In lieu of issuing Unsolved Mysteries on DVD in traditional "season" form, as is done for most television shows, the producers of the show have instead chosen to release "theme" packages—multi-disc sets containing a hand-picked lot of segments from the show's whole run that center on one particular subject. In the case of this set, the subject is everyone's favorite unexplained phenomenon: unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.
The peculiar nature of Unsolved Mysteries almost mandates this kind of thematic treatment: Many of the mysteries explored in the show are no longer unsolved, often thanks to the show's attentive viewers. Hence, releasing only the best of the still unsolved UFO cases makes for a more compelling and higher-quality experience. The producers selected (as per their introduction) the most "believable" of the UFO segments the show had aired over the years. Most of the usual suspects are present and accounted for: the Roswell incident in 1947; police officer Lonnie Zamora's encounter with a UFO in Socorro, New Mexico; crop circles; the Nazca Lines; the Mexico City UFO (witnessed by thousands of people); and other examples of recent sightings (e.g. the Hudson Valley UFO, the odd lights seen over Phoenix, Arizona, and the strange Bentwaters incident at a U.S. air base in England).
But there are a good number of more obscure, but no less interesting, segments that should pique the interest of all but the most die-hard UFO buffs. There's the story of a weird goo-like substance that fell from the sky in a small town in Washington State—a goo that turned out to be chock full of human white blood cells, intestinal bacteria, and single-celled animals. Bizarre! There's the story of four men who suffered a "missing time" experience while on a camping trip in the Allagash River area in northern Maine, who later independently told essentially the same story (of alien abduction, natch) under hypnosis without having had any chance to coordinate their stories in advance. Spooky! There's a UFO encounter in Alberta, Canada that has both an eyewitness and a mysterious videotape capturing something exactly like what the witness described—but the tape was sent by an anonymous person, and was accompanied by some obviously forged documents and obviously faked photographs. What should we believe?
The greatest strength of Unsolved Mysteries was always its clear, concise, and powerful storytelling. It never tried to be "artsy" or dramatic; it just laid out the facts of the case, clearly and without an attempt at bias, for you to process and judge on your own. It manages to stay simple and clear without ever crossing the line and becoming simplistic and condescending. There's a reason why this show was so successful. It spoke at a level where many people could listen and feel that it was "speaking their language," and wasn't treating them like someone who was dumb and needed to be educated about things.
The glue that holds this show together, though, is the great Robert Stack. Somehow, I don't think Unsolved Mysteries would have been successful, or even watchable, if someone like, say, Howie Mandell had been the host. (Sorry, Howie.) Stack—Elliot Ness himself—brings an aura of respectability and sincerity to the show that makes everything presented on it, no matter how fantastic it may appear, seem to be (at the very least) possible and rational. Credit should also be given to the producers' efforts in pre-screening the stories they considered for airing. These aren't the tales of Cletus from uppin the hills, who done been out back gittin' his moonshine when he done saw sumpin up'n the sky that don't looked like no milly-tary plane—i.e. stories where only the most gullible believers wouldn't instantly see a rational explanation for the "encounter." For the most part, these are the stories of average, well-adjusted people who sincerely believe that they experienced something which defies explanation. Whether they factually did have those experiences or not may be in doubt—but they definitely think they did. Which makes their stories, presented frankly and directly by Unsolved Mysteries, all the more compelling.
All in all, there are 26 individual segments in this package, each of which runs between 10-20 minutes, for a total running time of about 360 minutes. Picture and sound are fine. The show is presented in its original full-frame format, and a 5.1 surround track has been generated from the show's original stereo audio. Extras are fairly scant, but that's probably to be expected from this kind of show. Three extras are repeated on each disc: an introduction from the producers, a "behind-the-scenes" look at the 150th "solve" from the show (functionally, a segment about mysteries featured on the show that had been solved thanks to viewer tips), and a 15-minute tribute to the life and times of Robert Stack (who died of a heart attack last year). The Stack tribute is actually a pretty succinct and complete biography of a fascinating Hollywood personality—fitting, given the succinct and complete nature of the show's storytelling. The commentaries, provided for two segments per disc, are very hit-or-miss. Some are criminally short, providing very little information on the production of the segment or on the story-behind-the-story. Others are more informative—but none are really stand-out extras.
Until there's some concrete, unassailable measure of proof introduced to the debate—a Little Green Man pulling up outside the Today Show studio and introducing himself to Matt and Katie, for example—we can never truly prove that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. But we can't disprove it, either. No matter which side you fall on in that argument, this disc set gives you plenty of food for thought. Although nominally a showcase for Unsolved Mysteries the television program, Unsolved Mysteries: UFOs is more valuable—extremely valuable, actually—as a good, thorough survey of a large chunk of the current state of UFOlogy, something that has been missing in the DVD world until now. For those interested in UFOs, it's an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
• Introduction by John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer
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