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A geologist reviews the season premiere of Science Channel’s ‘What on Earth?’

How mysterious are these things, really?

It’s an often-repeated wish: A TV show has a good premise and would be excellent if only the execution wasn’t so formulaic. It seems cable channels are beholden to using a template that appeals to mystery-mongering, with the content presented via fake narratives.

Producers have decided – and have admitted as much to the scientists and historians they recruit for these shows – that programs must be snappy and exciting to appeal to the attention span of the average viewer, which apparently is all of five minutes. They take for granted that the audience wishes to avoid thinking and so must be spoon-fed a story with constant movement and splashy graphics to maintain interest.

And so it goes with the fifth season premiere of Science Channel’s What On Earth?: Terror in the Skies. What on Earth? (WOE) is a great premise: satellites capture unusual imagery that invite further examination. But instead of a deep dive into what, where, how and why, we get 5-10 minutes of fake exclamations of wonder, wild speculation, sometimes a diversion that dead ends, a conversation with an insider (who is required, apparently, to be filmed on a bridge), and ultimately an unsatisfying conclusion that blips away to the next incredible and mysterious observation.

To achieve maximum effect, the WOE writers often script a fictional situation where an expert (geologist, former CIA operative, archaeologist, etc.) is shown a weird aerial image to capture a dramatic “first impression” that then compels them to find out more. They may travel to the location if possible (sometimes the places are inaccessible due to geography or, perhaps, they are in Iran or Russia) to see firsthand. It’s conceivable that the featured expert is not aware of what the visual is depicting, but I doubt it.

Here are some examples. A geologist (specifically a volcanologist, which is an important point) is shown a massive, gray “blob” in Java, Indonesia. She acts as if she’s never seen anything like it before and must “know more,” so she travels to the location and is flabbergasted by a mud flood. This is a mud volcano. It’s obvious to any geologist with just a little training in volcanology.

“The weird, gray mass”

The satellite photo was noted to have been captured in 2018. This massive outpouring of mud that destroyed the town of Sidoarjo and covered the surrounding 25 square kilometers in feet of hot, flowing mud made headlines in 2006. Called the “mud monster” by the frantic-sounding narrator, the details of the incredible story are condensed. The viewer is led to believe this geologist is the first to investigate the site, which rightly should irritate those who first put their boots on the ground to examine the catastrophe.

Another example is that of the North Dakota pyramid. The investigator feigns astonishment and concern over what looks to be a bizarre location. In the drawn-out presentation where it appears the researcher is completely in the dark, he visits the site and dramatically enters one of the rusted structures to find an empty facility. At this point, I paused the program and Googled “North Dakota pyramid.”

This is a Cold War era facility with missile silos and a pyramid-shaped radar system. It’s on Atlas Obscura! It’s no mystery. The more interesting story of why it was built this way and why it failed was curtailed. The experts on the show suggest “theories,” as if no one has previously thought of these before. Portraying them as oblivious to established information erodes their real-life credibility.

Wikimedia Commons

The non-fictional content in WOE is fascinating! Other stories presented in this two-hour special included that of “Operation Brother,” where Ethiopian Jews were smuggled out of Sudan as part of the Arous Vacation Village on the Red Sea; the strange activity of the Russian research ship Yantar, tracked by satellite, that was later determined to be a spy ship; Iran’s “terror dome” for testing missiles; and the excavation of Pluto’s Gate (to Hell) and temple in Turkey. People enjoy trying to guess what the satellite imagery represents and then listen to credentialed experts explain it. Why can’t we see that kind of show?

The satellite imagery may not be relevant to the topic, but it’s used as a springboard into a scary, “nightmarish” story. Three times in this episode, the writers inserted a creepy-crawly dead end, seemingly just to make viewers squirm. They suggest a rain of spiders to explain a swatch of white ground cover, and show swarms of locusts and screw worm/fly infestations to suggest that building compounds may be laboratories to eradicate the pests. The end result is a confusing and less-than-informative mash up of speculation and truth that succeeds at least in making some viewers uneasy about the state of the world.

Like other, similar shows, WOE assumes that people won’t look up these cases and find that they have been well-known for years. The images warrant explanation, however, and that would make an excellent program. There’s nothing stopping WOE from describing details on the history of the investigation, the legitimate scientific research behind it, the rarity of the event, and the relevance to our lives. In other words, they would do well to provide context, which is almost entirely missing in this show. Thus, viewers get badly short-changed.

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