Here be monsters and UFOs, and they’re on telly

There is one taste in television that I find difficult to swallow. That is the passion for so-called factual channels to present the most meretricious rubbish as documentary.

One inevitable consequence of Covid, shielding, lockdown and all that was that it encouraged the inner couch potato. What better way to pass the hours stuck indoors than watching television?

That is not a complaint. Television is a wonderful invention and, thanks to it, I can watch football from all over Europe, wonderful music from Moscow, from Berlin, from Vienna, or snooker from such exotic locations as Shanghai or Sheffield.

Not everybody, of course, shares my tastes, which is just as well: it would be a very dull world if we all enjoyed the same things. Fortunately, with the number of channels available nowadays, there is something for everyone.

But there is one taste in television that I find difficult to swallow. That is the passion for so-called factual channels to present the most meretricious rubbish as documentary.

Take history channels, for example. They are besotted with visions of little green (or grey) men, flying saucers, and bug-eyed monsters, devoting interminable episodes to the idea of ancient aliens, the single minded and indeed simple minded concept that mankind’s entire development has depended on the intervention of a super intelligent alien race who have been visiting earth for thousands of years, altering human DNA, and growing our intelligence.

Just the other night, I heard a “learned” authority state categorically that Jesus Christ was one such alien and that the Star of Bethlehem which accompanied His birth was, in fact, a flying saucer that brought the Baby Jesus to earth.

There is one flaw (only one?) in this argument. If said aliens are so intelligent, so scientific, and so technologically developed, how come they keep crashing their flying saucers?

A key component of the ancient alien theorists’ belief rests in 1947 when a flying saucer allegedly crashed into an otherwise deservedly insignificant town in the US called Roswell. So we are supposed to believe that these aliens, so hyper-intelligent, so technically advanced, fail to notice they’re about to collide with North America when trying to park their spacecraft.

What worries me is that all these people seem to have PHDs. What do American universities issue doctorates for – reading cereal packets?

I am reminded of a wonderful story by the great American humorist Bennet Cerf about the wealthy Boston family who kept boasting about their son who held a pivotal post in the medical faculty of the world famous Harvard University. Until that is the night when a guest, feigning interest, asked innocently what their son was studying. The parents had to reply: “Oh, he’s not really a student. The Harvard doctors are actually studying him.”

If the science of ancient aliens is at best dubious, it palls into insignificance compared to the pseudo-science of cryptozoology, which obsesses the travel and discovery channels. Cryptozoology is a totally artificial, invented study of fabled and mythical animals, the existence of which has so far proved impossible to establish.

As far as television goes, the practice of cryptozoology seems to consist of selecting a group of (very) bad actors, outfitting them in the sort of hillbilly outfits that Central Casting might think suitable for a very cheap production of Rose Marie, equipping them with totally superfluous amounts of facial hair, and dispatching them into the wilds of Alaska, the Appalachians, or the Louisiana bayous, to track down such exotic creatures as the Sasquatch (the Sunday name for Bigfoot), the Otter Man, the Chupacabra, the Ozark Howler, or even – my all time favourite (and I kid you not) – the Grunch! Their efforts to find and trap these creatures seem to consist exclusively of charging through the undergrowth, usually in all-terrain vehicles, lighting up the entire neighbourhood with powerful spotlights, and bellowing at one another at the top of their not inconsiderable voices.

Now, I am not a hunter. But I know enough to realise that tracking and stalking wild animals is a matter for calm, quiet, patience, and stealth – particularly when said wild animals are anything up to three metres tall and weigh in at about 400 kilos.

I am not a killjoy. I am of an age to have cut my reading teeth on the legendary Eagle comic and, hence, the exploits of its greatest hero, Dan Dare, and his archenemy, the evil Mekon. Years ago, when I had a profitable sideline scriptwriting for boys’ comics, I even invented a race of evil aliens intent on conquering earth myself. Is there anyone out there who remembers the Drakken?

And I still maintain a love for science fiction and fantasy. Although in these days of the “woke” fraternity and sorority, demanding positive discrimination in casting, I suppose one should be careful in admitting to liking the Hellboy films ….. such a pity that Hollywood couldn’t find a real demon for the title role! As for Lord of the Rings – forget it. Not a genuine Hobbit, Elf, Dwarf, Orc, or Troll in sight!

But there has to be a clear distinction between fact and fiction, between documentary and entertainment. Otherwise, in the words oh Henry Ford: “History is bunk.”

Wylie Cunningham is a Scottish reared and trained journalist, working as a reporter, feature writer, and columnist across a range of newspapers including the (Glasgow) Herald, as it was then, and the Daily Express. He then moved into public relations, both commercial and political, working on a wide range of campaigns. Latterly, his career embraced political and organisational management across several of the UK’s leading institutions. But, at heart, he regards himself as an old fashioned newspaperman, rooted in the days when you knew you had “arrived” when the compositors gave you your name on a hot metal slug. He believes his entire career has been essentially journalism, harnessing information flow to build bridges across the community. He and his wife Margot have lived in Malta since 2004.

Main photo: Bob Gimlin/YouTube

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