Tag Archives: speculative documentary

“The Question is, What’s Going On…” MISSING IN ALASKA

MISSING IN ALASKA

on History Channel


showposter

(2/5)

Pros: Interesting basis for the episodes…


Cons: …but the conclusions drawn seem like a stretch

“This dramatized program is inspired by eyewitness reports and legends and may contain certain sensationalized and/or controversial content. The personal opinions and theories expressed are not endorsed by the network.

Viewer discretion is advised.


There are currently 738,000 people living in Alaska. In the past 20 years…more than 60,000 have been reported missing. Some believe a number of these cases…stem from mysterious phenomena.”

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So reads the intro of History Channel’s latest supposed documentary Missing in Alaska, which premiered in July 2015 and follows the exploits of a three man team – former police officer and apparent skeptic Jeremy “Jax” Atwell, folklorist Tommy Joseph, and “specialist in strange phenomena” Ken Gerhard, who’s been featured in many vaguely similar programs and doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty curved cowboy hat – whose goal it is to explain some of those many disappearances. Appropriately enough, this show airs just after the now-almost-parodical Ancient Aliens and on the one hand, I’ve got to give the producers credit for at least acknowledging that what’s covered in their “dramatized” show might be “sensationalized and/or controversial” – right there, they’ve already been more honest with their viewers than any number of the typical “monster hunt” programs, of which Destination America’s Alaska Monsters may be the most flat-out absurd. Of course the disclaimer does leave the door open for everything discussed in Missing in Alaska to be utter hogwash, so the question then becomes why anyone would want to watch such malarkey…

BRAND_H2_MSGA_162202_TVE_000_2398_60_20150722_000_HD_still_624x352The MiA team on the hunt…

Initially, Missing in Alaska seems fairly straight-faced. Each episode tackles one possible cause that would explain people vanishing in the so-called “Alaska Triangle.” The program’s first episode deals with the sudden disappearance of a C-54 military transport carrying some 44 persons in January 1950. Numerous planes go missing in Alaska but the majority of these cases can probably be blamed on unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns. The particular incident covered in the show is noteworthy not only for the amount of people who were lost, but also because a massive military search operation didn’t yield a single clue as to what actually happened. Gerhard, being of sound mind, believes that the so-called “vile vortices” may be to blame, thus making a connection to the blatantly phony Devil’s Graveyards mockumentary. Episode two likewise travels through familiar territory, covering the team’s search for the so-called “Hairy Man,” a Sasquatch-like creature prowling the Alaskan wilderness that is rumored to be both larger and more aggressive than the typical “Bigfoot.”

Missing_In_Alaska_Tommy_Joseph_Bio-E“Expert on Alaskan legends” Tommy Joseph posing with supposed Hairy Man nest.  Yeah, I’m not buying it either.


After a narration provides some backstory for each episode (and to be fair, there’s legitimate historical basis for at least some of the subjects tackled here), the MiA team sets out on a quest not only to find experts and witnesses who may shine some light on the case they’re investigating, but also to have some first-hand experiences for themselves. Invariably (and in some cases most inexplicably), the team’s research leads them to conduct some sort of nighttime investigation, which may be about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard – is it really a good idea to go lurking around after dark in remote areas where five out of every thousand people disappears, knowing full well that bears may be lurking just out of camera range? Even if I can accept that the investigation of the “Hairy Man” might turn up something in the nocturnal hours, what could possibly be learned by prowling around at night in search of vile vortices? Regardless, these segments do wind up providing the almost mandatory infrared and night vision sequences along with a multitude of declarations like “did you hear that?” or “there’s definitely something out there!”

29EA0EB600000578-0-image-a-11_1435136401617Landscape photograph in the show is, as might be expected, outstanding.

Like many other modern “speculative documentaries,” Missing in Alaska does a reasonable job of appearing to represent authentic events and situations. Similar to a program like America Unearthed, Missing in Alaska incorporates some subtle reality TV moments: to an extent, the show is more about what happens during the team’s investigation rather than the underlying topic being examined. The documentary-like approach is also pretty solid, boasting some stunning photography of the breathtaking Alaskan landscape, but the illusion of verisimilitude collapses or is at least severely strained at times. Episode one features a moment where the team utilizes an aerial drone to try and get a wide-range view of a snow-covered valley. The drone is quickly lost during a sudden change in weather, but “miraculously” appears – with its tracking beacon and scientific gear still functioning – later on during the episode’s climax. Much as I like to keep an open mind, I don’t at all believe the nudge-nudge-wink-wink assertions that this drone actually went through one of the vortices the team was searching for and then apparently jumped ahead in time and space – that notion just pushes my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Similarly, episode two’s conclusion of a shadowy figure knocking a trail cam around seems highly suspect – it’s simply too convenient and frankly unbelievable that this team would randomly stumble upon an unknown hominid during the course of a few day film shoot.

ken_gerhard.1322040_stdKen Gerhard – specialist in strange phenomena.  And owl wrangler.

Given the sketchiness of the show, I was somewhat shocked that Gerhard, a somewhat respected (?) figure in the world of cryptozoology and the paranormal, would appear in something like this. Maybe the guy’s looking for acting gigs nowadays, for that surely is more what Missing in Alaska seems: I would hope that most viewers would take any of the “factual” information here – at least that which the research team stumbles across – with a grain of salt. There are strange things occurring in the Alaskan wilderness and the number of missing persons in the state is undeniably alarming, making the real life aspects and historical incidents depicted in Missing in Alaska quite fascinating. To instantly jump to the “mysteries and monsters” conclusion with regard to explaining these disappearances however seems not only illogical but irresponsible. As a “documentary” then, though Missing in Alaska is not quite as utterly reprehensible as what I’ve come to expect from the genre of ghost/monster/unknown-related programming, it’s still highly questionable. As entertainment however, it does exactly what it’s supposed to, raising numerous questions and getting a viewer thinking about the infinite possibilities that are/may be out there. This isn’t must-see TV by any stretch, but those who enjoy shows dealing with the paranormal will probably get a kick out of it.


 

OK, it’s Amazing, but it’s also Phonier than a Three-Dollar Bill: T. REX AUTOPSY

T. REX AUTOPSY

on National Geographic Channel

(3/5)


Pros: Anatomically-correct “body” is jaw-dropping; good information

Cons: Someone out there now believes that T.rex specimens exist

With the new Jurassic Park movie right around the corner, the National Geographic Channel cashed in renewed public interest in all things dinosaur with a new, attention-grabbing two-hour special. Premiering on June 7, 2015, T. rex Autopsy delivers exactly what its title says…sort of. It might go without say, but I should probably emphasize (especially considering that Animal Planet’s 2012 docu-fiction production Mermaids: The Body Found convinced some viewers that these mythological creatures actually existed) that T. rex Autopsy doesn’t feature scientists carving up a real dinosaur carcass. Instead, we get about as close an approximation of what cutting up a dinosaur might be like. Admittedly, I was very skeptical about what this program would deliver – I’ve seen a few too many of the phony documentaries which seem to accompany each and every themed block of programming on any of the (supposedly) educational television channels – but actually found Autopsy to be a bit better than I would have expected. That said, in my opinion, programming like this (which for the most part skirts around the fact that the “body” we’re seeing dissected actually was manufactured) is somewhat dangerous in the context of a modern society that seems to believe anything and everything it sees with its own eyes.

Trex3Had to throw in a chainsaw, didn’t we?

After a brief bit of set-up which revolves around shadowy military forces transporting a large cargo by plane and flatbed truck, T. rex Autopsy introduces us to the four (apparently, legitimate) persons who are going to conduct the “autopsy” on a dead tyrannosaur. Heading the (literal) operation is Dr. Luke Gamble, a veterinarian who comes across as a cross between Simon Cowell and chef Gordon Ramsay – a semi-irritating British fellow who’s job it is to make the occasional wisecrack while bossing people around. While Gamble handles most of the logistics of the “autopsy,” paleontologists Dr. Steve Brusette and Dr. Tori Herridge and fossil hunter Matthew Mossbrucker attempt to add credibility to a program that at its core is about four people slicing apart an (undeniably amazing) Hollywood-grade special effect. Remarkable though it may be, they generally succeed to that end since this show goes a long way in revealing the physiology of dinosaurs, doing an especially nice job of relating these extinct creatures to the modern day birds and reptiles which are their closet living relatives.

T.rex_Autopsy_London_AMS3loWhat would a big-time docu-fiction special be without a viral ad campaign?

Taking place in what appears to be a hanger-like facility, the autopsy at the center of this program attempts to determine the cause of death of full-size, female tyrannosaur. To that end, Gamble and his team examine every major bodily system of the T. rex, delving briefly into the purpose of these systems and the way they actually functioned. A viewer certainly does come away with significant insight into tyrannosaur anatomy and realizes how fine-tuned this “king of the tyrant lizards” was as the supreme predator of its time – though to be honest, the writing staff seems to have literally gone down the list of topics covered on the and made sure each was covered. The star of the show is unquestionably the anatomically-correct, life-size “body” which took some six months and 10,000 man-hours to complete. A marvel of fabrication, the T. rex is amazingly-detailed, right down to various membranes, internal organs, and bone structures, and I could definitely see people believing that this thing was the real deal – which only makes the show’s reluctance to admit that it’s fake more problematic.

The show’s running joke – “getting in the belly of the beast!  ARGGH!”

Though I had some basic knowledge about dinosaurs, I was surprised to learn about the many discoveries in the area of dinosaur physiology that have been made in recent years due to new technologies and the use of computer analysis. Virtually nothing was known about the internal structure of these beasts until quite recently, but new hypotheses are now popping up almost continuously. At the same time however, much of the knowledge about the internal structure of dinosaurs seems theoretical at best – soft tissue vanishes over time, leaving only fossil remains behind and it’s almost impossible to provide definitive evidence of any of the claims made by this program. To me, filling in the blanks where scientific knowledge stops is a very questionable practice – television programs like this (along with the new Jurassic Park) will literally be the only information most of the public will get about dinosaurs this (or any) year. To be presenting incomplete information as absolute fact then seems irresponsible.

tyrannosaurus-thomas

If nothing else, the program does provide nice insight into the anatomy and behavior of the T. rex.

Ah, but people aren’t trying to be “edumacated” by T. rex Autopsy, they’re trying to be entertained, and the program works on that level even if it sometimes seems a bit too theatrical and obviously scripted. This is especially true with regard to the cast’s attempts to “sell” the repulsiveness of the autopsy, and at times, the program absolutely revels in blood, guts, and disgusting visuals. Sequences such as one where the scientists end up digging through the sloshing stomach cavity in search of remains or one in which they manipulate the creature’s heart in an attempt to demonstrate its operation aren’t for the squeamish, while a moment in which the sole female goes elbow deep in the creature’s cloaca (essentially, the final juncture of both the excretory and reproductive systems) is just gross. Director Richard Dale’s camera doesn’t at all shy away from the gore, and the cast frequently find themselves literally wallowing in leaking bodily fluids. Attempts at lame humor that pop up occasionally struck me as being in bad taste, but I guess are to be expected in any television program of the ADHD era.

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The amount of craftsmanship that went into the fabrication of the “body” is staggering.

Surprisingly, T. rex Autopsy only unleashes a handful of talking head sequences featuring genuine experts; most of the scientific information is provided by a narration track (read by Salvatore Vecchio) that seems to assume viewers are not only inattentive, but quite possibly downright stupid. Virtually every concept presented in the program is spelled out for viewers, with “key” elements being repeated again and again. A nice selection of appropriate illustrations and graphics give the viewer a (literally) better picture of what is being discussed, but I found that the CGI renderings of Tyrannosaurus stalking through prehistoric swamps and forests to be particularly goofy looking – granted, one of the show’s main goals is to emphasize that T. rex essentially is a “killer big bird” but I don’t think these digital images are quite meant to make it look like an oversized, discolored and mentally-handicapped chicken.

1220461_dinosaur_t_rex

BIG BIRD!

The premiere of T. rex Autopsy was supplemented by an outstanding trio of brand new legitimate documentaries relating to paleontology – Dino Death Match chronicled the effort to prove that a new species of predatory dinosaur existed alongside T. rex, while Jurassic CSI examined numerous theories related to dinosaurs using new evidence and Ultimate Dino Survivor detailed T. rex’s amazing ability to survive debilitating injuries. I’d have to guess however that most viewers didn’t give these shows the time of day, preferring instead to watch the more entertainment-oriented and movie-like Autopsy special.

Anytime dinos are around, John Williams ain’t far behind…

Much in the same manner that Eaten Alive drew attention to South America’s anacondas, the primary goal of T. rex Autopsy undoubtedly was to generate interest in dinosaurs through sheer sensationalism. The more programs of this nature that pop up, the more it strikes me as disturbing that genuine documentaries of the type, for instance, that PBS specializes in just don’t seem to draw viewers anymore, regardless of how fascinating their subjects may be. Increasingly outrageous faux-documentaries like Autopsy do generate discussion about their topics – which is a good thing; still, I can’t entirely get behind programs that sacrifice authenticity just to get some butts in the seat. T. rex Autopsy presents a wealth of interesting information for sure, but also elicits a WTF response as far as I’m concerned. It may be worth watching, but shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously.

Here We Go Again…TRUE SUPERNATURAL

TRUE SUPERNATURAL on Destination America Channel

(2/5)

Pros: Interesting subject matter

Cons: …oh, it’s another one of shows…

Midway through a third season of Mountain Monsters that’s proven to be the most absurd yet, the Destination America channel has unleashed a mostly straight-faced program dealing with mysteries and monsters that provides an alternate to watching supposed investigator “Wild Bill” Neff grill corn on the engine block in his Ford or explain his tendency to name his push mowers after American presidents. Though its name might indicate that it falls more in line with the many “Ghost Hunter” shows out there, True Supernatural has more in common with Science Channel’s The Unexplained Files since it seems to be more wide-reaching in its approach, tackling most any subject that exists outside the realms of normal explanation.

gee...
Gee…d’ya suppose they’re going to drag out that dead “Chupacabra” again at some point?

Featuring the usual assortment of reenactments, talking head interviews and a spattering of actual “evidence,” the series premiered on April 8, 2015 with an episode that covered a pair of stories, at least one of which should be very familiar to paranormal enthusiasts – the alien abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill. Occurring in 1961, this incident is regarded as the first of its kind, and the program does its part to provide a (relatively toned-down) crash course in the particulars of the case. The other point of focus for the debut episode is the so-called “Rocky Mountain Demon Wolf.” After years of anecdotal reports, many of which came from AmerIndians, a bizarre, hyena-like creature actually was shot and killed in the late 1800s. After being lost for decades, the preserved carcass of the creature was recently rediscovered, leading to renewed interest in trying to identify the beast.

you'd look like that too
You’d have that morose too if you’d been kidnapped by aliens….

Like many other modern Unsolved Mystery-type programs, a main idea of True Supernatural is to apply science to these enigmatic stories. In the case of the Hill abduction, this mainly involves DNA analysis of the dress that Betty was wearing when the alleged abduction occurred. Past examinations of the article have revealed strange, pink-colored stains in certain areas which were reportedly handled by the extraterrestrial beings, yet new scientific techniques may be able to provide new information and maybe even an explanation as to what actually occurred more than five decades ago. The carcass of the “demon wolf” is also subjected to expert analysis during the course of this episode, although a squabble over ownership of the specimen has hampered efforts to test the remains.

beast of gevaudan
The Beast of Gevaudan which terrorized France in the 1700s – could the “demon wolf” killed in the late 1800s be a similar, unknown creature?

While all this actual science sounds great – and believe you me, the narration throughout the program does its best to “sell” the potential bombshells that analysis could reveal, I don’t think I’m really giving anything away by revealing that nothing much comes out of any of the hoopla put forth in the show. As is standard with regard to this type of speculative documentary, a viewer is left with more questions than definitive answers once everything is said and done – which isn’t necessarily a bad call considering how willing some people are to declare that a conspiracy is going on if science doesn’t provide the answers that they are looking for. If True Supernatural finishes things off by not explaining everything, all possibilities still exist…which means that the believers out there can keep on believing.

caution

Another area in which True Supernatural is quite similar to other programs of this sort is in its choice of subject matter. Browsing a brief list of future episodes, it seems like the producers have chosen to cover a nice variety of topics, alternating between stories about genuine mysteries and ones dealing with unknown creatures such as Bigfoot. Considering how popular monster/cryptozoology shows have been in recent years, this seems like a good call, but I’m forced to again go back to a point I’ve made before: how many times can these programs cover the same sorts of material? Is there honestly anything new to be added to these arguments…or perhaps I should ask whether additional scientific testing will reveal anything earth-shattering. In covering the same topics that have been explored elsewhere, True Supernatural, like many shows before it, seems mostly to be recycling material, which doesn’t much make for ground-breaking television as far as I’m concerned.

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What is somewhat new is this program’s format: instead of using the usual investigative report format in which the show is broken down into separate segments, True Supernatural presents both stories covered in its episodes concurrently. This does mix up the (very tiresome) formula one might expect in a show of this nature, but I don’t think it’s an especially effective way to relate information. The debut episode seemed a bit awkward as it randomly switched back and forth between its topics, and I also found that the omnipresent narration was extremely repetitive, apparently designed specifically for viewers made brain-dead through exposure to too much awful reality television. To be completely honest, this program drags significantly and seems almost entirely to be composed of material that’s little more than glorified filler. Once the background information into the Hill case and demon wolf was presented, the episode proceeded to repeat information ad nauseum in an attempt to build anticipation for a “big reveal” moment that simply didn’t materialize nor actually provide any new information. The question then becomes why anyone would waste an hour watching a show that could easily cram its information and arguments into about a fifteen minute block.


Cue the Bigfoot episode now for maximum tie-in value!

If anything has been proven over the years since In Search Of…, it’s that so-called “paranormal television” provides a reliable – and increasingly easy – way to get butts in the seat. Hell, even if most of these shows are complete bunk and aren’t at all what I would label as being good television, I can’t help but be fascinated by the subjects they cover. In the end then, I suppose that True Supernatural provides a viewer with exactly what he would want from a show of this nature. It’s not a great series by a long shot and almost certainly won’t solve any longstanding mysteries as it goes along, but there’s no doubt it would appeal to curious viewers.

waiting....

Decoding Satellite Imagery on Science Channel’s WHAT ON EARTH?

WHAT ON EARTH? on Science Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: More science and evidence than is common for this type of speculative documentary; fine presentation

Cons: Recycling of topics from other shows; no real answers provided

Filling the void left when shows such as America Declassified (which hasn’t returned following its first season in 2013-14) and The Unexplained Files aren’t delivering new episodes, Science Channel’s new series What on Earth? (which premiered on February 10, 2015) continues to explore the realms of the unknown. Though it traverses much the same realm of conjecture as History Channel’s trendsetting Ancient Aliens, What on Earth? would seem to have significantly more credibility than the typical program of this nature. In recent times, a large number of surveillance and observation satellites have been launched into orbit, many of which have the goal of surveying and mapping areas of the globe which previously had been largely undocumented. During the course of this survey process, various anomalies of one sort or another have been uncovered and photographed and What on Earth? focuses its attention on these frequently strange but indisputably authentic images in an attempt to promote thought about what they actually are depicting.

ruins of El Dorado?
Could these ruins, revealed from space, be the remnants of the legendary ?

Set up like the typical television documentary, this program features a familiar mixture of archival footage, an inquisitive, omnipresent narration (provided by Steven Kearney), expert analysis from a veritable “who’s who” of persons who regularly appear in these sorts of programs, and actual evidence and documentation; in this case, the satellite images themselves. The straight-forward presentation of this “hard evidence” is easily the show’s main draw, and there’s no denying that the topics discussed during this program (which are examined on both a macroscopic and microscopic level) would be fascinating for those interested in science and the world around them. The show’s debut episode featured a variety of stories, covering topics ranging from the so-called “band of Holes” which snakes through the Peruvian Andes to an image which seems to show a humongous tsunami heading towards Hong Kong. Also discussed is an extremely shadowy submarine base in China, a huge Florida sinkhole which contains several-thousand-year-old human and animal remains, and a lake in Iraq that appeared blood red when photographed from space. As is about the norm in programming like this, What on Earth? doesn’t so much try and explain everything, or indeed, anything. Instead, the goal seems to be to make a viewer aware of some interesting phenomena and various hypotheses surrounding them so that he can do some additional research on his own if desired.


, off the coast of Australia, as seen from Google Earth’s satellite. Strange thing is, shortly after this photo appeared, the island, originally documented by Captain Cook, vanished completely.

While this show’s level-headed presentation may be its best characteristic, I also really like the fact that What on Earth? doesn’t draw things out to a ridiculous level. A significant problem in shows like UFO Conspiracies, The Unexplained Files, and even Dark Matters: Twisted but True is that individual segments are stretched out to the point that each episode only features the examination of two or three separate topics. What on Earth? only devotes about ten minutes of screen time to each subject it discusses, so the program is able to cover significantly more topics per episode. I’m a fan of this approach since, at a certain point, there’s really nothing more to be said about any single thing. I’d rather a show of this nature move on and cover something else than beat a dead horse for a half hour just to satisfy time requirements or an established format.

USS THRESHER
One of the strange, obscure stories that popped up in the series’ first episode was the tale of the , which sank under mysterious circumstances in 1963.

On the downside, it seems like this is another program on an educational channel that’s recycling topics that have been discussed previously elsewhere. In relation to this debut episode, the “Band of Holes” had been covered previously (several times) on Ancient Aliens and the topic of so-called “red rain” had been the subject of an episode of The Unexplained Files. This repetition of material is somewhat frustrating: considering that I believe that the same audience would be interested in most if not all programs dealing with these sorts of unknown phenomena, since nothing significant is added to the discussion here, it seems mostly pointless that What on Earth? would cover the same topics as have been dealt with in other shows. You’d think (especially given that a new “unsolved mystery” type program seems to pop up every other week anymore) that these programs would want to stick out from the crowd and have some element of distinction to them, but I guess the producers are more content to stick to tried and true subject matter. If it works for Hollywood….


What would a speculative documentary be without some good conspiracy theory to mix things up?

All in all, What on Earth? does exactly what it sets out to do I suppose, a well-executed television documentary that remains compelling even if it does seem to talk about the same sorts of things as any number of vaguely similar shows. My favorite aspect of shows like this are the esoteric anecdotes that one inevitably gets while watching, and this new Science Channel series certainly provides a few of them per episode. In my opinion, What on Earth? doesn’t think far enough outside the box to be truly outstanding, but there’s more than enough food for thought here to please viewers who would watch a show like this in the first place. The fact that the program is based on actual evidence is a definite plus, and I’d urge interested parties to check it out if they get a chance.

many evidence

Where in the World is Josh Gates? EXPEDITION UNKNOWN

EXPEDITION UNKNOWN on Travel Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: Entertaining and enjoyable, with some educational value tossed in for good measure

Cons: SURPRISE! The show doesn’t conclusively prove anything

Premiering in 2007 and running for a full five seasons, Syfy Channel’s Destination Truth can now be regarded as one of the best paranormal (and more specifically monster hunt) series ever produced. Centering on archaeologist/explorer/adventurer Josh Gates and his quest to identify mythical cryptids (i.e. unknown creatures) and uncover strange phenomena in various locations around the world, the show was part travelogue, part speculative documentary with its best trait being that it didn’t bullshit its audience. If Gates and his revolving crew of companions didn’t find anything, they didn’t try and convince the viewer they did. Regardless of whether anything unusual was encountered on the average Destination Truth episode however, the program was consistently entertaining…and not nearly as moronic as the current wave of monster-related cable programming. Hell, you’d think DT was made for intellectuals when comparing it to the likes of Alaska Monsters, which serve up the lowest common denominator of entertainment.

Gates in Peru
Gates in Machu Picchu – there certainly plenty of subject matter for this new series.

In 2014, Gates confirmed that Destination Truth had in fact run its course after a couple year hiatus, but this wasn’t the end of the line for Gates in the genre of the speculative documentary. I have to admit I was pretty stoked when I heard that Travel Channel had ordered a new series in which Gates would investigate various “iconic mysteries” (whatever that means) – the new show was entitled Expedition Unknown and debuted in early January 2015, with its first two-hour episode dealing with the search for clues in the disappearance of famed aviator (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic). Arguably one of the most widely-known and enigmatic missing persons cases in the world, the Earhart disappearance has captivated the public for more than seventy years: while attempting to fly around the world on an equatorial route in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished while flying from Papua New Guinea to small Howland Island in the Pacific. Despite a massive Naval search, no trace of Earhart, Noonan, or the plane has ever been conclusively found, leading to not only to endless speculation about her ultimate fate but also to numerous, conspiracy theories.

Earhart
New evidence may solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. Or not…

Inspired by some “new” evidence, the debut episode of Expedition Unknown follows Gates on a journey to various Pacific locales in search of what may have been Earhart’s final resting place. As mentioned, many theories exist about where Earhart’s plane may have gone down – all of which assume that the official story that the plane was ditched and sank in the ocean near Howland Island was somehow false. In any case, Gates begins by investigating a theory stating that Earhart somehow circled back to Papua New Guinea and follows up on reports of plane wreckage in the remote jungles of the island nation. Despite the fact that stumbling on these crash sites would be akin to locating a needle in a haystack, Gates actually does find a downed plane – though it turns out to be a Japanese craft likely lost during the second World War. Continuing on, Gates scans the ocean bottom off the coast of the island of New Britain in search of other crash sites, locating additional WWII wrecks including one that appears to still have the bodies of its pilots strapped in the cockpit. The second major theory investigated in the episode examines the notion that Earhart and Noonan actually made it to uninhabited Nikumaroro island, where unknown human remains were discovered in the ‘40s and subsequently taken to Fiji for analysis. Attempting to locate these skeletal remains in Fiji, Gates is eventually led to the crawlspace under a house where he discovers human bone fragments…

random bone fragments
Random bone fragments under random house in Fiji…wait a minute…THEY MUST BE AMELIA EARHART’S!

Like Gates’ previous program, Expedition Unknown stands as a cross between a travel video that’s filmed in exotic and and a speculative documentary centered around increasingly eyebrow-raising theories. Clearly, Gates and his production team have the basic formula for this show down pat: though the production seems somewhat more modest than what was featured in the typical episode of Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown is more polished and focused, at least in this initial episode. I rather liked the moments in which glimpses of the local cultures of Papua New Guinea and Fiji were seen as Gates continues his investigation; these sequences arguably provide the most memorable moments from the episode including one where a small but powerful earthquake strikes while Gates is conducting an interview with a native chief. Even if the moments in which Gates has to conduct some sort of “welcoming ritual” to be accepted by various local peoples seem quite cliché and, honestly, ridiculous, it’s neat to be able to see how life operates in these remote corners of the globe nonetheless. Photography throughout the program is pretty outstanding and looks professional – especially compared to the shakycam overload that the majority of the reality/monster hunt shows on cable nowadays rely on. The producers and editors do a fine job of capturing the look and feel of the places Gates travels to, and I was particularly awed by images of the (smoldering) volcanoes which exist in the area around New Britain (an island in Papua New Guinea).

places I'd rather be
Places I’d rather be: this show features many of them.

As was the case in Destination Truth, Expedition Unknown goes out of its way to not only hold a viewer’s interest, but also to keep him entertained. There’s plenty of humor present in the program – most of which comes from the quick-witted commentary of Gates himself. Perpetually good-natured with a never-ending enthusiasm, Gates is the ideal host for a program like this, ensuring a viewer remains captivated throughout since he puts forth a nice balance of more light-hearted, comical material and cold, hard facts. One could easily point out that nothing overly dramatic or mind-blowing happens during the course of this initial episode, and I don’t think I’m spoiling the show by saying that Gates doesn’t conclusively prove anything relating to Earhart’s disappearance. Nevertheless, the editing of the program generates a nice sense of forward momentum while emphasizing a few minor cliffhangers (which conveniently appear right before commercial breaks).

culture
What would a globe-trotting documentary be without the obligatory “I must become one of the tribe” sequence?



On the downside, those looking for a more straight-forward, “lets stick to the facts” program will likely be less-than enthused about the format of this show. Clearly, this show is more entertainment than education, though it’s excellent as a combination of these two things – a viewer does get a crash course history of Earhart’s life and flying career for instance. I could also point out that the episode’s final segment – in which human remains are uncovered in the foundation of a Fijian residence – in all likelihood has absolutely nothing to do with the Earhart disappearance. To some extent, I can see how more outrageous, sensational material like this is almost necessary in modern speculative documentary programming (how else could the comparatively sober and documentary-like Expedition Unknown compete with the likes of the ridiculously absurd Mountain Monsters and the like?), but throwing in this climax that seems to have little to do with the subject of (or frankly, the rest of ) the episode nonetheless remains somewhat sketchy. Finally, I should point out that this show (like Destination Truth before it) sometimes feels like one big ego trip for Gates, showing how “cool” and “hip” he is. Over time, I think one warms up to the host, his humor and style, but I could see some people being turned off by his approach (as I was when I first saw Destination Truth years ago).

Future episodes
Who knows what future episodes of the series will bring, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Ultimately, the problem with this show (and many others of its kind) is that no major revelation comes out of it – but that’s strictly par for the course these days. Expedition Unknown is perfectly agreeable for what it is: an entertaining and enjoyable program that attempts to shed light on mysterious places and events while following its host around the world. It may be too jokey for some, but I think this show has just the right amount of fun and fact, making its subject matter tolerable for those who wouldn’t otherwise watch an “educational” program. I’ll be interested to see what direction this first season heads in since there are so many potential topics out there for the show to explore, but at this early juncture, I’m calling the series worthwhile and recommended.

A Pseudoscientific Apocalypse! THE DEVIL’S GRAVEYARDS: VILE VORTICES REVEALED

THE DEVIL’S GRAVEYARDS on History Channel

(1/5)

Pros: Some thought-provoking moments

Cons: Poor acting, bad script, predictable conclusion, and precisely no scientific credibility

Produced by the same company responsible for such glorious bunk as Discovery Channel’s Megalodon specials, The Devil’s Graveyards: Vile Vortices Revealed is easily the worst of the recent slate of phony cable television documentaries which have been passed off as the real deal. Premiering in late 2014 on The History Channel, this program revolves around “investigate journalist” and apparent moron Don Murphy, who sets out to document the rather esoteric experiments being conducted in the Algerian desert by one Dr. Joseph Spencer. A biologist by trade, Spencer is investigating the reasons why his young son was murdered by the family dog two years prior, and has come to the conclusion that disruptions in the earth’s magnetic field have not only led to various instances of unusual animal behavior (including the unprovoked attack that took his son’s life) but also are threatening the whole of human existence. If a series of twelve magnetic anomalies located around the world known as , the “devil’s graveyards” of the film’s title, are not neutralized, Spencer believes that intense solar radiation will be allowed to seep into Earth’s atmosphere, thus transforming the planet into a lifeless wasteland like Venus or Mars. In an attempt to find a way to neutralize these areas, Spencer and his hapless crew attempt to bombard the Algerian vortex with a powerful electromagnetic pulse. Will this have any significant effect…and more importantly, will any single viewer care?

camera coverage
Good thing there just happens to be twelve cameras situated around the research area so a viewer gets to see everything as it happens…

Based largely on the rather sketchy theories of zoologist Dr. Ivan Sanderson who, while investigating disappearances in the , initially came up with the idea of the so-called “vile vortices,” The Devil’s Graveyard starts off with a disclaimer which states that “this dramatization is based on an actual 1972 document entitled ‘The Twelve Devil’s Graveyards Around the World.” This notice goes on to reveal that the network airing the program does not in any way endorse the claims made in it, thus one can at least say the program makes some attempt to inform an attentive viewer that not everything here can be taken entirely (or at all) seriously. That a similar warning appearing during the end titles flashes on screen for a split second speaks to the fact that the producers are more probably trying to pull a fast one on the viewer. On some level, this is (yet another) obvious extension of History Channel programming of the Ancient Aliens variety; Devil’s Graveyards goes so far as to suggest with a straight face that extraterrestrials were in fact responsible for creating the vile vortices in the first place, a suggestion that’s more idiotic than half of the alien theories presented by the likes of Giorgio Tsoukalos. It also heaps on the conspiracy theories, referencing bizarre Nazi experiments and even the controversial while blaming everything from massive bird die-offs to Hurricane Katrina on the vortex phenomenon. Needless to say, when it comes to actual hard proof and scientific evidence, Graveyard comes up short.

and here he is...
And here he is ladies and gentleman…a random actor…I mean Dr. Joseph Spencer.

Even if director Douglas Glover goes to great lengths to make Devil’s Graveyards look and play like a legit documentary however, it more seemed to me like the people responsible for this program had watched a few too many classic sci-fi movies – the show has many aspects reminiscent of the outstanding 1985 film and even has a “don’t flip that switch” moment ripped right from the playbook of the classic Ghostbusters. Furthermore, the general premise of the program isn’t entirely dissimilar from the plot of the 1953 low-budget genre flick since a radioactive isotope, not a flesh and blood monster, is the “villain” of the piece. This, of course, makes Graveyards noticeably uninteresting and plain dull when compared to the likes of Wrath of Submarine or Russian Yeti since the main “threat” presented herein is theoretical rather than something one can see.

periodic table
Sure, aliens might be readying for an invasion, but THIS IS THE REAL ENEMY!

To be honest, the vile vortex theory is simply too scientifically complex (and maybe, too ridiculous) for the average viewer to comprehend: the program does its best to explain things, but this only makes for a very talky and awkward program since the characters literally have to spell everything out for viewers who wouldn’t otherwise understand anything being discussed. I suppose the door for this kind of programming has been left open by the numerous recent television series dealing with unexplained phenomena, but I still have to question the decision to produce a feature length mockumentary about vile vortices in the first place. Could it be that the these fake documentaries have already exhausted the pool of topics to draw from?

bye

Acting throughout the program is frankly awful: we’re supposed to believe that we’re watching real people dealing with real situations, but this notion is simply impossible to swallow. Witness the laughable scene where the actor portraying Joseph Spencer recalls the death of his son, then has an “emotional” breakdown moment. This actor doesn’t do much better of a job portraying the excitement of the scientist when a breakthrough in his experiment seems evident, and it’s similarly amusing to watch the actress portraying the research team’s electrical engineer try to keep a straight face when conducting high school chem lab level experiments and demonstrations. Special attention must be paid to the actor portraying the team’s “conspiracy expert:” why this guy would be needed as part of a scientific team is unclear, but he always seems to provide definitive “A-HA” moments when the scientific gobbledygook gets a little thick. Clearly the worst actor of the bunch is the one portraying reporter Don Murphy: this guy’s “investigative reporting” is atrocious and he gives the most forced performance on display in the program – especially when he’s seen on-camera narrating his own story.

ominous music playing...
…ominous music playing…

Combine the bad acting with the lousy scripting and absurd, utterly outlandish theories the show puts forward and you’ve got the most abominable of the recent, made-for-cable faux-documentaries. The Devil’s Graveyard not only looks cheap and hastily-made, but is extremely clunky in terms of its construction. The prime example of how this production is simply incompetent is the use of “actual cell phone footage” of Dr. Spencer’s son being attacked by his dog: I would assume this sequence was supposed to be dramatic, but it’s downright humorous after being repeated for about the fifteenth time. Compounding the problem is a sense of story development that is overall too tidy and convenient to be a convincing portrayal of reality. Finally, the film leans heavily on explanations that most viewers wouldn’t even remotely be able to decipher: there’s simply too much scientific nonsense presented as absolute fact here, and I suspect the bullshit detecters of most viewers would be sounding throughout the film. Does this program propose some intriguing ideas and offer up some food for thought? Sure: it’s compelling in the same way that most programs dealing with mysterious phenomena are. At the end of the day however, why would one waste his time with a completely illogical and mind-numbingly phony program like this – especially one that’s undeniably this poorly made? (Interesting note: the studio responsible for this program doesn’t even list it among its credits; perhaps they too realized what hogwash they had brought onto the world.) Predictable and ultimately, a complete waste of time, The Devil’s Graveyards is best avoided.

wtf science

This Youtube Video is about as quality as the “documentary:”

The Weird Side of the Soviet Union: MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN on Animal Planet

(4/5)

Pros: Well-organized; interesting variety of subjects; more level-headed and objective than is usual for this type of program

Cons: It’s a speculative documentary: some folks just won’t appreciate it; sensationalist title doesn’t represent the material very well

Refreshingly straight-forward in both its presentation and in the various hypotheses it proposes, the two-hour special Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain, which premiered October 26, 2014 on the Animal Planet Channel, stands in stark contrast to increasingly manipulative (and goofy) programs like the previous year’s Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives which handles some of the same subject matter. Directed by Gareth Sacala, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain operates in much the same manner as an episode of Monsters and Mysteries in America in that it features discussion of a half dozen or so stories of the unknown which originated in and around the former Soviet Union. A few of these stories specifically involve the existence of unknown creatures which seems to be a very popular subject on television these days, but the majority deal more generally with unexplained phenomena.

The real monster
Subliminal messaging: is this the REAL monster behind the Iron Curtain?

The program starts with what in my opinion is its most interesting segment, one which seems to have been pulled straight out of the pages of Dark Matters: Twisted but True: a brief examination of the history of rather unorthodox experiments that took place in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. While researching how organs were controlled by the brain and functioned, scientists and developed the basic techniques by which organ transplants are conducted today, yet hearing about how this duo not only kept the hearts and whole heads of dogs alive after they had been separated from their corresponding bodies, but also created two-headed animals and very nearly reanimated a dead human suggests these scientists may have been willing to push the boundaries of science a bit too far in the name of progress. What’s more shocking perhaps is that even though the former Soviet Union has released some files relating to these experiments, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever really know how far these experiments went. After viewing some of the actual film footage seen here (which includes images of a heart beating independently of its body, one dog’s head being kept alive in a metal bowl and another animal having to fight off the snapping jaws of a second head that’s been grafted onto its neck), I’m not sure anyone would really want to uncover the true extent of these experiments even if the knowledge gained has proven to be invaluable.

WARNING: GRAPHIC! Footage of dog head grafting experiments.

From here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain goes through an intriguing, if fairly typical collection of segments and stories, some of which seem more outrageous then others. A viewer hears about the legend of the , a subterranean creature who’s said to spit venom and be able to conduct electricity and delves into the legend of the so-called “” which exists in the remote Siberian forest. This plot of barren land apparently causes death and misery to anyone who ventures near it, leading scientists to debate its true nature as the site of a possible underground fire or maybe even the location where meteoric debris has settled. A from the Caucasus Mountains in which a group of mountaineers was severely burned by an unknown ball of light is investigated, as well as a in which a young medical student attacked fourteen women, killing four. In the wake of the attacks, it was speculated that the man was possessed by a demonic spirit called a , a being which appears to have been at least partially responsible for the modern idea of the vampire. It’s almost expected that a program of this nature at least briefly focus on some sort of Bigfoot story, and this is provided in the form of an examination of the Russian Wildman. The documentary concludes with a substantial inquiry into the fascinating and enigmatic in which nine mountaineers were killed under mysterious circumstances while skiing in the remote Russian wilderness in 1959.


Remains of one of the Dyatlov expedition members. Half the mountaineers died from incredibly traumatic injuries which, according to official government reports, were caused by “a compelling natural force.”

Along with a steady narration provided by Eric Myers, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is told largely through interviews with various researchers and investigators and occasionally, the actual people involved first-hand in the stories. Throughout the program, we have a number of well-handled recreations of the situations discussed which hammer home the subjects the talking heads are discussing. I think one of the best things about the program (as mentioned) was its use of sometimes gruesome and disturbing archival film footage and photographs. Some of the segments here are largely recounted through dialogue, but there has been an obvious effort made to add credibility to the eyewitness accounts and people making them whenever possible. Keeping in mind the undeniably sketchy evidence usually presented in these types of shows, I’d have to say that Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain does a fine job of honestly presenting its information. I also appreciated that the program doesn’t automatically go for the jugular and force the viewer to buy into some very outlandish explanation for what’s occurring in these stories. The program for instance proposes that the mysterious ball of light was actually the incredibly rare meteorological phenomenon known as ball lightning, which actually seems plausible in this circumstance, and the Dyatlov incident segment focuses on the notion that a top-secret parachute mine test caused the deaths of the mountaineers. Generally speaking and as might be expected, this documentary doesn’t come up with any real answers, leaving it up to the viewer to make up his own mind with regard to these cases. I thought this sense of ambiguity was welcome when the vast majority of crypto-reality TV shows jump to wild conclusions in five minutes or less.

artists' rendering
Artist’s rendering of the Mongolian Death Worm.

Even if it takes this program less that twenty minutes to conveniently introduce Idaho State University professor Dr. Jeff Meldrum (who shows up in virtually every Bigfoot-related documentary to explain that yes, there is a possibility that previously unknown creatures do exist in the world – just in case anyone needed that point reinforced) as the obligatory “voice of reason” to add some sort of scientific seal of approval for what’s being proposed here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is easily a more level-headed and ultimately better program than dozens of vaguely similar shows that have turned up in the last couple years. Compared to outright fabrications like the Russian Yeti, Megalodon, or Wrath of Submarine which choked viewers with phoniness, this one at least attempts to remain neutral and objective, simply presenting information in much the same manner as a program like Unsolved Mysteries. For that alone, it deserves commendation in an era where sensationalism goes a long way in making a program stand out from the crowd. Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain obviously wouldn’t be counted among the greatest documentaries of our time, but it’s well-done for what it is and should please viewers interested in the paranormal. Recommended.

dog

D.o.A.: KILLING BIGFOOT

KILLING BIGFOOT on Destination America

(0.5/5)

Pros: Fairly serious and more credible than the lot of similar programs

Cons: Everything is very familiar and I simply can’t for the life of me condone this show’s message

With the current, rather pathetic wave of cryptozoological (read: monster) related reality television shows coming to an end and a few weeks before the new season of Finding Bigfoot starts, it was only a matter of time – a week to be exact – before the Destination America channel’s next monster show would turn up. Unfortunately, as this genre as a whole has become ever more phony, goofy and unbelievable, Killing Bigfoot, which premiered on Friday, October 24, 2014, appears to be deadly serious – and, in my opinion, completely reprehensible. Following the exploits of another acronym-defined paranormal research group (the GCBRO – Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization; they have their own hats so that means that must be legit), the show attempts not just to find one of the hairy, bipedal apes rumored to exist in the woodlands of Texas, Lousiana, and Arkansas, but kill one of the creatures to prove their existence once and for all.

Yes, as one eyewitness points out with regard to the unknown hominids, “most people just let ‘em be.” Not our gang of trigger-happy bayou folk. That’s just not how they roll…

oh snap

Working off the same pattern that led to shows like Mountain Monsters, Swamp Monsters, Monsters Underground, and Alaska Monsters (UGH! – that has to be one of the worst quartets of shows imaginable), Killing Bigfoot begins with a brief, stylized introduction to the eight-man team the program revolves around, a group of “vets, ex-cops, and hardcore woodsmen” who are shown in the opening montage cocking huge shotguns and blowing away paper targets shaped like the (in)famous . Multiple people featured in the show are identified as “snipers,” while a few – including one fella who’s name is given as “Grumpy” – are given the task of “investigator”; hell, I was cracking up imagining that the show existed as a deranged version of Snow White and the Seven Dorks. Mainly, this crew goes about the normal monster investigation routine – interviewing witnesses, looking for proof in the swamps and forests of western Louisiana, and conducting night investigations that tread suspiciously close to looking like what one would find on the typical hunting program since they involve multiple people traipsing through the woods with shotguns at the ready. What’s shocking about the show is that, unlike the increasingly preposterous monster-related shows on Destination America channel, the characters…er people featured in Killing Bigfoot don’t seem to believe they’re part of an ongoing hoax or comedic program. These guys really are trying to kill a Sasquatch.

leave it to texas
Leave it to Texas to declare that it’s legal to kill Bigfoot…

Right there, I’m already on the verge of writing this program off on principle alone. To me, that this group of supposed investigators’ first response when encountering an unknown creature – even one that reportedly is mighty similar in both appearance and behavior to human beings – is to “bag it and tag it,” is disgusting. It’s this kind of pompous, gung-ho attitude that has caused many problems in recent years (read into that what you like), and it’s about the most unscientific, irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard when mentioned in regard to the existence of unknown creatures. Sure, a Sasquatch corpse likely would silence all the critics – but I can’t in any way, shape, or form condone the wanton killing of an unknown creature just to prove its out there. In all likelihood, if these creatures do in fact exist (in which case, their habitat is rapidly decreasing due to human population expansion), they’re incredibly rare and by eliminating a breeding member of their population, the survival of the species as a whole is potentially put in jeopardy. All one has to do is examine the history of the , or to see what effect the kind of mentality put forth in this show can have on the animal kingdom.

I know harry, I know
I know Harry…I know.

By autumn 2014, television producers are old pros at making programs of this nature and the ultimate flaw of Killing Bigfoot (aside from its careless main theme of shoot first, brag about it later) is that everything here is painfully familiar. Despite that, I have to admit that this program seems substantially more credible than the likes of Mountain Monsters/Swamp Monsters/Alaska Monsters. First of all, the GCBRO members here don’t just conveniently stumble into the path of the creature they’re seeking: though the show’s narrator informs us that there are “signs of the creatures all around,” we never get any proof of Bigfoot’s existence – or a massive, fabricated pursuit of an unknown beast during the episode. This, in my mind, is indicative of the fact that the producers are at least to some extent attempting to make a more factual, level-headed program whose primary goal is not necessarily just to shock a viewer with how asinine the whole production is (as seems to be the case with most other monster shows).

um
Um…just what is that?

Refreshingly, though the show may feature some of the worst sighting reenactments I’ve ever seen, not one character featured in Killing Bigfoot falls in line with being labeled as the goofball, “wild card” or loose cannon (i.e. the , , or character) – this gang seems dead serious, although this has repercussions in the long run. Namely, the show is nowhere near as entertaining as some of its other, unbelievably ludicrous monster-hunting kin. There isn’t a whole lot of camaraderie on display between team member and there aren’t obvious jokes and wisecracks being traded around continuously – hell, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the GCBRO was made up of people who hate each other even if they are rather civil about it. As might also be expected, the climactic “night hunt” sequence is pretty low-key – not much of anything happens and the show’s conclusion is more or less ambiguous (even with the obligatory cliffhanger).

told ya
Told you – the GCBRO has its own line of stylish caps. It’s gotta be a legit organization, right?        RIGHT???!?

Ever since Mountain Monsters changed the very nature of the crypto-reality show through the use of obvious fabrication, I’ve been wondering if any producers of this type of program would have the balls to make a show in which a monster wasn’t instantly, inexplicably found and chased down. Dumb as it is, watching a group of actors … I mean “monster hunters” … stumble around in the dark chasing phantoms has its appeal on a purely stupid level. As some have pointed out in the commentary on my no star review of Alaska Monsters, watching the show is like looking at a car crash – and the statement is true. I’ve just never quite come to terms with the fact that in order to watch these shows, I had to give up an hour of my life that would be MUCH better served doing something more rewarding and/or worthwhile. Problematic though it is in many, many ways, Killing Bigfoot to its benefit doesn’t automatically assume its viewers are morons looking for supposed entertainment of the lowest, most idiotic variety (and let’s be honest – most of these monster shows are designed for people who would watch just about anything if it was on TV). In a way, I appreciate its serious tone and apparent focus on faux-authenticity – no documentary can ever be entirely objective, but this show seems vastly more reasonable than many similar shows and for that it deserves some measure of credit.

just what we need...
Just what we need: another monster show, and another bunch of gun-happy “investigators” trying to shoot phantoms…and each other.

Try as I might however, I don’t think anything could ever make up for this show’s main premise as it goes out of its way to pursue its own, unreasonable agenda: when you’ve got multiple persons attempting to convince a viewer that Bigfoot should be killed to protect the residents of Louisiana…and GASP! their grandchildren…I could do nothing except shake my head at the screen. This type of blatant and unfounded paranoia-inspiring fear-mongering is dangerous in terms of what affect it has on viewers and one of the main problems if not the main problem with American media. Is it really us humans who should be afraid of Sasquatch, a creature which, if we’re to judge upon reliable evidence, has never posed any serious threat to people? Or is it Sasquatch who should be afraid of us, a species who not only randomly kills virtually every other animal on earth, sometimes purely for sport, but even kills members of its own species for the most fickle reasons imaginable? You be the judge. I’m giving Killing Bigfoot a half a star and I’d urge most viewers to avoid it.

from on .

Why…Just Why? ALASKA MONSTERS

ALASKA MONSTERS

image-placeholder

(0/5)

Pros: May amuse some people, though that may be an indication that there’s no longer any hope left for humanity

Cons: Completely…utterly…hopelessly unnecessary, phonier than a three dollar bill, and dumber than five boxes of rocks

Another week; another positively ludicrous phony monster hunt program. Alaska Monsters is the Destination America channel’s latest entry in the crypto-reality genre, following the exploits of a monster hunting crew located in the “last frontier” of the forty-ninth state. As has come to be the norm, we have the usual gang of characters: team leader “Little Bear,” a trap engineer named Todd, tech specialist Levi, a fellow named Rhett who’s billed as the “rookie,” a trapper named “Face” who’s the obvious “wild card” of the group and finally, a “researcher” who goes by the name of – get ready for it – “Crusty.” This gang, known as the “Midnight Sons” has been tracking creatures in Alaska since 2008 (at least if you believe anything this show is trying to tell you), and in the first episode of the reality show revolving around them, go in search of Alaska’s Bigfoot-like creature that’s known locally as the “Wild Man.”

first episode
On the first episode of Alaska Monsters, the team searches for “security expert” Huckleberry. Wait…that ain’t right…

The program follows the now very well-established monster hunt formula to a ‘T’: it starts with the initial night “recon” mission, involves a few eyewitness accounts (one of whom declares he was “out here gettin’ wood with my dog…” sounds like a personal problem), and sputters towards a final “midnight hunt” that puts the team directly in the path of an imaginary beast created solely through dubbed-in sound effects and blank expressions of fear from the actors…er…team members. Alaska Monsters seems a bit more modern in terms of the gear used during the investigations featured on it: in this first episode, the team not only utilizes night vision and FLIR infrared technology, but also a small drone with a camera mounted on it to survey the nearby landscape. This allows the seemingly misplaced Levi character (who seems not at all at home alongside a group of people one would expect to see waiting in line at the local soup kitchen) a sense of purpose in the show. Rhett, on the other hand, has nary a thing to do throughout the program and I’m not even sure that he takes part in the final night investigation that mainly involves the team tramping around a saw mill with firearms at the ready. After some obviously scripted “suspense” (“Oh no! A production assistant is shaking this blind I’m sitting in!”) and plenty of dubious acting on the part of the cast, the team walks away without a single solitary piece of evidence relating to the creature they’ve been pursuing. The show (like every episode of Mountain Monsters) ends with the crew making vague insinuations and wisecracks about the existence of the creature in an attempt to convince a viewer that he hasn’t just witnessed a load of complete bullshit.

supposedly scary scene
This poorly concocted, “scary” scene stands as the premiere episode’s climax.

It really is astonishing to me that somewhere, some network executive is giving each and every one of these absolutely ridiculous and devastatingly pointless monster programs the green light – and actually spending some money on their production. The ultimate sad fact about shows like this one, Monsters Underground, Swamp Monsters and Mountain Monsters (which lost all credibility or, more importantly, sense of fun it once had during a painful to behold second season) is that they make shows like Destination Truth and even Finding Bigfoot look not only like top-notch entertainment but actually, undeniably credible. Let’s not forget that Destination Truth’s host Josh Gates wasn’t at all afraid to admit that he found no evidence of the at best rare and more probably completely imaginary creatures he was seeking and Finding Bigfoot still has not one solid bit of evidence after five full seasons. The notion of a monster hunt program that doesn’t instantaneously come up with a creature seems almost preposterous in context of this new breed of monster hunt programs exemplified by any of the Mountain Monsters clones that not only invents fictitious and frequently outlandish beasts, but then tries extremely hard through glaringly phony video evidence, sketchy eyewitness reports, and falsified, scripted scenarios to convince the audience of their actual flesh and blood existence. I’m kind of scared to see what happens on the next season of Finding Bigfoot: will that show even continue when it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that there’s still nothing on the hill?

After an overload of absurdly similar and increasingly worthless programs, I would hope that most people would recognize the fact that very few of these monster-related shows are even making any attempt to be authentic in their presentation of content. Hence, it’s impossible for any savvy viewer to take these shows as anything except entertainment – they clearly are not documentaries. That said, it’s surprising how lousy most of them are in the entertainment department, and I think most of that is directly related to the fact that there is absolutely no originality to these shows. Alaska Monsters is a carbon copy of Mountain Monsters, a fact which is best exhibited by examining the characters. Trap builder Todd (much in the way his counterpart Willy does in Mountain Monsters) sets about building the most outrageously elaborate and positively impractical traps one could possibly imagine. In order to catch a Bigfoot-like creature, Todd constructs a “cylinder snare trap” – basically a huge tube with a system in place to close metal wire around a creature trapped inside of it. Why any beast would actually go inside this contraption in the first place is never explained (do these “expert trackers” not realize that their human stench would be hanging over this device like a fog?), and it’s no surprise when something goes wrong with the mechanics of the device and it’s not actually unusable.

acting
ACTING!

Additionally, we have smarmy narration provided by the appropriately named “Crusty,” a guy who seems vaguely unlikable and sleazy (or maybe it’s just that I can’t see the fashion value of the animal claw he wears in his thick, bushy beard) and “Face,” the obligatory “wild card” character who talks in a raspy, cartoonish voice and achieves moments of enlightenment when discussing wild man “doo doo” and imitating Fred Flintstone. I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. The characters here seem way too “hammy” and almost make Vincent Price performances from the 1970s look restrained in comparison. All in all, there’s simply no way one could take anything in Alaska Monsters seriously – not when “Little Bear,” sporting an outfit that makes him look like a complete d-bag, starts mystically playing a pitch pipe around a campfire and discusses his tendency to “burn sage.” Seriously, where’s Bobo and Ranae when you need them?


So…”Little Bear” (in center) is wearing ass-less chaps, some sort of fur stole, a cowboy hat with the face of a small weasel on it, a fistful of gold rings, and a big, blinging medallion shaped like either a grizzly bear or a domestic hog. And we’re supposed to take this show at all seriously.

I’ve gotten to the point where there’s no way to even describe how atrocious shows like Alaska Monsters really are: this fails horribly as a monster-related program due to not having one iota of credibility, but even as the trashy, clinically dumb piece of populist entertainment that it is, it’s a complete waste, way too similar to other monster hunt shows that any viewer who watches this program probably would be familiar with. The producers don’t seem to be aware of the fact that they’re running this genre of television into the ground through pure, unadulterated, unchecked overkill, and I sincerely hope that someone behind the scenes is making hay while the sun shines, because the genre of the crypto-reality show is very quickly outlasting its relevance and has already overstayed its welcome. Programs like Alaska Monsters not only seem entirely capable of ruining anyone viewer’s interest in the subject of cryptozoology, but make me long for a program where a mysterious creature isn’t instantly located by a group of morons whose idea of “tracking” a creature is whooping, hollering, screaming, and careening through the forest while explaining each and every obvious move they’re making to an audience who is well aware of the absurdity of what they’re watching. I also don’t need any scenes of hobo-looking fellas giving each other a brofist each time they make a smart-ass, scripted remark about a fantasy creature. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m actually looking forward to the new season of Finding Bigfoot just to provide some sort of balance to a genre that’s well out of control at this point – better prepare the lifeboats just in case though…

“There’s Something Down Here With Us!” MONSTERS UNDERGROUND

MONSTERS UNDERGROUND on Discovery Channel

(1/5)

Pros: The spelunking is pretty cool

Cons: They’re really running out of ideas for new monster shows…

Satisfying a niche (???) for shows about monsters lurking in caverns and abandoned tunnels, the second of three new monster programs on the Destination America channel premiered September 4, 2014 on flagship network Discovery. Another Mountain Monsters clone, this one following the exploits of cryptozoologist Bill Brock and the usual monster hunt team (a grizzled tracker named McGhee, a “scientist” named Casey who actually is a former physician and not any sort of researcher, and a character identified as “the beast” named Jeremy who is the ex-military, self-proclaimed “badass”), Monsters Underground tweaks the typical crypto-reality show a bit and may actually be one of the more creepy of the lot, having a more spooky atmosphere to it than any combination of Mountain Monsters, Swamp Monsters, Beasts of the Bayou, or even Finding Bigfoot episodes. Needless to say, as a scientific examination of unknown animals, Monsters Underground fares as poorly as the rest of those programs, providing scant evidence of any of the beasts Brock and his crew supposedly and inexplicably come into contact with.

know what's going on here?
Know what’s going on here? Neither do I, but I’m pretty sure there hain’t no monsters being found.



In the first episode of the series, Brock and company wind up in Arizona’s Volcano Cavern on the search for a large bat-like creature known as the (this despite the creature hailing from Africa). After briefly consulting a single eyewitness, the team heads more than 200 feet underground and comes into contact with a blob that shows up on the FLIR infrared camera. What this blob is is anyone’s guess, but of course the team immediately assumes it’s the creature they originally intended to find in the cave in the first place. Though I have to say the episode does a nice job of building tension as an unknown creature apparently stalks the team members in a deep, dark underground hole, I’m not all that convinced that the depiction of events in the narrative of the program is accurate.

oh look!
Oh look – There it is!

A second episode saw the team in an area of Northern California known as Graveyard Gulch searching for an animal that apparently has been killing the local black bear population. This creature, called the and supposedly related to the now-extinct giant sloth, has to be one of the most ridiculous creatures any crypto show has ever sought out. As depicted in computer rendering here, the beast has a single large eye in the center of its head and a toothy mouth situated in the middle of its abdomen. Yeah…because that’s definitely real. At any rate, the team again finds itself in a staredown of sorts with an unknown creature that may or may not actually be real (I’m favoring the second of those options), and again, escapes with nary a single bit of hard evidence proving the creature’s existence. Or should I say, Brock claims he procures a DNA sample on a net coated in adhesive, but since the results of that analysis aren’t provided, I’m calling BS on the whole evidence/science thing.

yeah...
Yeah…’cause THAT‘s a real thing…

Perhaps the best thing about Monsters Underground overall is that episodes of the show only run a half hour. Cutting the typical monster hunt show down by fifty percent means that Monsters Underground at the very least doesn’t waste time with town hall meetings, obligatory “let’s make fun of Wild Bill” moments, or “find the most sketchy witness possible” segments. Brock and his team cut to the chase: by the time these episodes reached their first commercial break, the monster hunt is solidly underway. The downside of this is that the creatures featured (on these first two episodes at least) positively seemed like figments of the imagination since there was only the briefest of discussions about past reports of the creature, their habits, and appearance. Though the program is tightly edited and fairly suspenseful, with ghostly music and sound effects applied at key moments, there’s no escaping the fact that the whole monster aspect to the show seems like absolute fantasy.

Sadly
Sadly, this is precisely what these guys seem to be doing throughout the whole episode: sitting around, shining their flashlight at nothing in particular.

As much as I could proclaim that the crew in this show is probably putting themselves in the most obvious danger of any monster crew on television since they appear to be spelunking with minimal safety gear in some rather hazardous cavern systems, quite frankly there’s no way these situations are as hairy as the editing and commentary from the team members would suggest. If things were really that bad, there would be no way at least one camera crew would be able to document the team’s every move. That said, it’s difficult to fake some of the very real perils faced while traipsing about in relatively unknown subterranean caves: during the second episode for instance, gung-ho Jeremy dislocates his finger in about as gruesome a manner as possible and later has to painfully reset the joint. I’m not sure I can get behind Jeremy’s “kill first, ask questions later” approach, but the guy is a tough dude not only to remain calm looking at one finger that’s at a right angle compared to the rest, but also to put said finger back in place later on.

jeremy and bill
At least this gang has their priorities straight, the shotgun being a key part of any spelunking expedition.

While the program may be acceptably entertaining as a sort of adventure show, the introduction of monsters into the mix seems extremely gimmicky in context. Nowadays, it almost seems that the “monster card” is being added into standard-formula reality TV programs that otherwise would have been tiresome – and utterly pathetic – to give them a little extra kick: both Monsters Underground and Swamp Monsters as well as the upcoming Alaska Monsters seem to be proof of this new trend (let’s not forget that multiple reality shows are set either in the bayou or in Alaska). In some regards, Underground Monsters doesn’t try and kid itself or its audience into really buying into the whole monster angle: this show is more about the spelunking than the honest-to-Pete search for any unknown creatures, but I then have to wonder why in the world anyone would really want to watch it? The show simply doesn’t seem to do much to win viewership for itself – though the monster hunt formula seems exhausted to begin with, the cast here is dull and doesn’t add any “zip” to the proceedings. And yes, as might be expected, the monster hunt itself is preposterous. Sure, this show is slickly edited and generally well-made, but I honestly wish reruns of the corny but straight-faced In Search Of…, Sightings, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, or hell, even Unsolved Mysteries would turn up in place of some of these increasingly desperate new monster-related shows. It seems unbelievable considering my innate fascination with all things cryptozoological, but I’m positively sick of this phony monster/reality garbage.

maybe
Maybe these guys should just stick to coal mining…

from on .