Thursday, September 25, 2008

Monster Quest: Here Be (No) Dragons!

Back in college, when I was slightly younger and considerably more impressionable, I looked forward to one thing more than anything else. After slogging through my morning classes, I would sit down with a nice cup of afternoon coffee and turn on History Channel reruns of In Search Of, Leonard Nimoy's 1970s pseudo-scientific look at all things alien, cryptozoological, monstrous, and downright bizarre. Leonard, immaculate in his blue serge blazer and wooly turtleneck, held forth in each episode with lectures on the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot, the undersea Bimini Road , the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, alleged alien architects of the pyramids, and a whole Are 51 hanger-ful of other weird and wonderful stories and half-legends. It didn't hurt that he was Spock--after all, he was a scientist in the 23rd century, and his methods were always forthright and honest. His calm, measured voice, coupled with the show's eerie soundtrack, made for an enjoyable half-hour trip into the surreal.

Fast forward a few years to Monster Quest, The History Channel's recent iteration of the venerable "the truth is out there" genre. During the show's opening montage of scary beasts, a deep voice-over informs us that "witnesses around the world have reported seeing monsters." Pausing a moment to consider whether these monsters might be real or imaginary, the voice-over continues, assuring viewers that the Monster Quest team will use science to find out the truth. At this point, I always feel as if I am the butt of some cryptozoological joke, that somehow Monster Quest has peeked inside my mind and glimpsed the seething conflict there between an earnest belief in cold analytical scientific inquiry and a penchant for wild speculation and thrill-seeking. To be perfectly fair, there's nothing at all about the show that suggests hoax or put-on--the investigations are always done by well-respected scientists and researchers who submit their findings to colleagues for testing and verification--but some part of me always imagines Leonard Nimoy, waxing speculative about the Lake Champlain monster on a poorly-constructed sound stage some time in the late 1970s. Why? I have no clue.

A recent episode of MQ focused on the yeren, the "wildman" of central China. Dr. Jeff Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and paleontology at Idaho State University, traveled to a nature reserve in China with a team of experienced trackers to search for evidence of the elusive creature. Dr. Meldrum and his team examined plaster casts of supposed yeren footprints, set motion-capture cameras to attempt to photograph the creature, interviewed experts and eyewitnesses, undertaking a difficult and often dangerous task with unbiased scientific objectivity (This is the standard drill for every episode). Despite the team's hard work, they returned with no clear evidence to support the yeren's existence, though Dr. Meldrum expressed satisfaction that the investigation had yielded new ideas that pointed in exciting new directions. The episode ended with a shot of Dr. Meldrum and the team sauntering off (despondently?) into the woods, eyes still peeled for any sign of the Chinese wildman.

And, herein, at least for me, lies the rub: Monster Quest never finds anything, yet people like me tune in every week in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a chupacabra in the woods or giant squid lurking in some dark underwater place. I have thought and thought about why a show, dedicated to rational scientific inquiry into creatures that it never finds, would have any appeal at all to me (or to anyone for that matter). Perhaps part of the fascination is due to my interest in mythology and folklore--all cultures have fabricated monsters to explain terrifying aspects of their worlds and life experiences--and my continuing hope to discover connections between the real and the imagined. Perhaps part is my long-standing interest in science, though I really understand very little of its methods or practical applications. Another part is perhaps a secret inner desire to have cryptids (undiscovered animals) proven to be fakes or hoaxes, and to be there in order to say "I told you so!" Whatever it is, every time I watch MQ, I remember Nimoy narrating In Search Of, attempting in a half hour to discover and explain all the secrets of Vlad Dracula, the Loch Ness Monster, or the supposedly alien-construced earth lines in Nazca, Peru. Maybe Monster Quest should go in search of Leonard...

Monster Quest airs on the History Channel on Wednesdays at 9pm Eastern

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