Pros: Entertaining, compelling – and surprisingly educational!

Cons: A bit cheesy at times; macabre subject matter might not be to everyone’s taste

Premiering in 2011, Science Channel’s Dark Matters: Twisted but True may be one of the best of TV programs out there dealing with what I would define as being esoteric and/or weird subjects. Lately, most examples of this type of show focus on pure conjecture, thus we have a deluge of programs like Mystery QuestWeird or What?Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, and Destination: Truth to name but a few. The thing that separates Dark Matters from these other programs is the simple fact that all the stories covered in Dark Matters are absolutely true – one can readily research any of the topics discussed in the show and learn other, potentially more disturbing things that weren’t mentioned in the program

Best thing about this show: SURPRISE! it’s all based on undeniable facts.

Introduced by host John Noble, star of the television show Fringe as well as the Lord of the Rings movies, each episode of Dark Matters contains three stories which fill up about fifteen minutes or so of screen time a piece (the show itself runs around 48 minutes after commercials are taken out). While Noble provides narration, each individual story is acted out in front of computer-generated backgrounds by a cast of actors. Generally, the actors here play in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner which actually benefits the show to some degree since the dramatizations look almost hyper-realistic in the first place due to the almost overwhelming, vividly colored computer-generated backgrounds. Despite the (purposeful) cheesiness though, these dramatizations certainly get the major points of each story across, all the while accentuating the more bizarre aspects of each of them. Intermittently throughout the program, various scientists and experts appear in brief interview segments to provide explanations of what we’re seeing and to give the program credibility. Though the use of “talking heads” has become somewhat tiresome in recent years since it is used in almost every documentary, this approach works well for Dark Matters considering how outlandish and sometimes outrageous these stories seem – I’m not sure viewers would buy much of anything they see here without it being corroborated.

The main focus of Dark Matters is on various unethical or plain immoral experiments that have been conducted in the name of science over the years. To that end, the program has discussed the Tuskegee syphillis study, early anesthetics, the secrets of Haitian zombification, the process by which Soviet geneticists attempted to cross-breed apes and humans, the Philadelphia Experiment, and even psychological studies in the 1960’s that may have inadvertently created the Unabomber years down the line. Most every subject featured in the program has some rather jaw-dropping aspects to it: I was legitimately shocked during episodes that examined early nuclear experiments in which stratospheric atomic bomb detonations were conducted – despite the fact that no one involved had any clue whether or not the blasts would trigger the atmosphere itself to explode. Another wild, jaw-dropping episode was one in which (AHEM – purportedly) the American government used a small village in France as a test area to see what would happen if an entire community was exposed to LSD. This testing led to a(n inevitable) cover up – and the murder of a government official who wanted to blow the whistle on the whole thing. Honestly, I’ve yet to see an episode that I didn’t find to be extremely interesting and eye-opening.

Computer-generated backgrounds in the show frequently seem hyper-realistic and surreal – a definite bonus.

Despite the fact that this show takes a basis in hard facts, it’s obvious that some liberties are taken with regard to the dramatizations. Many of the events discussed are simplified for the purposes of the program, and the fact that the overall feel of the show is somewhat amusing or comical could be problematic for some people – after all, we’re dealing with deadly serious incidents from scientific history, many of which are no laughing matter. Even if the effects themselves aren’t bad, the reliance on CGI is not especially to my personal taste whatsoever. Acting during the dramatizations varies wildly, and is almost exclusively of the exaggerated and goofy theatrical variety. There are times watching this show when the accents used by the actors are utterly ridiculous (Russian accents are particularly awful), and it sometimes becomes difficult to take the program seriously.

All that said, I’d have to say that this program generally does a nice job of researching its topics and condensing the major facts of each story into a digestible and captivating quarter hour. Each subject and circumstance discussed in this program could easily be expanded upon (and many have been in various National Geographic and Discovery Channel specials), but Dark Matters is remarkable for its ability to present an entertaining “crash course” examination of each of them. I think most anyone would learn something from this show – it’s safe to say that I’ve found out about dozens of intriguing stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have ever heard of. I also think the purposely cartoony, phony backgrounds add to the strange, surreal atmosphere that the producers are shooting for in the program. Overall, the show is very “pretty” to look at, even if the subjects are occasionally despicable.

Along the way, scientists and experts provide much-needed explanations and corroborate the information.

I have to emphasize that any viewer should really do his own research before accepting anything seen here as absolute truth: as noble as the intentions of this program are, fifteen minutes simply isn’t enough time to cover everything one needs to know about any of its subjects. I use this show as a sort of “springboard” leading into further research. I should also mention that Dark Matters features a viewer discretion warning before each episode, and in most cases, this advisory is warranted. The program does feature discussions about alarming subject matter, and the recreations are often disturbing and occasionally gory.

In 2013, the producers released a batch of episodes billed as “Extra Twisted” that, similar to VH1’s Pop-Up Video (and any number of Discovery/Animal Planet shows), contain a running, on-screen and text-based commentary track providing extra information. Personally, I found these episodes to be pretty worthless – most of the blurbs have nothing to do with the historical stories, but rather focus on the production of the episodes and their CGI effects. I really could care less about this information – I DEMAND MORE FACTS AND HISTORY! Moral of the story: if you’ve already seen the original Dark Matters episodes, Extra Twisted is a complete waste of time.

With any luck, the gruff John Noble will return for a third season of episodes…

After running through two seasons of episodes (nineteen in total), Dark Matters has seemingly been put on the shelf, which is unfortunate. I find this show to be fascinating, raising still very relevant questions about what lengths humankind should go in order to learn and innovate – after all, reprehensible though it was, experimentation on humans by Japanese and Nazi scientists during WWII had a profound impact on modern medical technology. Dark Matters: Twisted but True is rather macabre and may not be to all tastes, but I think viewers who enjoy science – particularly untold and genuinely bizarre stories from history – would find this program compelling. Re-runs on the Science Channel air pretty regularly, and it comes highly recommended from me.

Leave a Reply