BOOTLEG FILES 335: “In Search Of…” (1976-1982 syndicated series).
LAST SEEN: Some episodes are on various online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The series was never packaged for home entertainment release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It doesn’t seem likely.
Back in the 1970s, there was a sudden groundswell of interest in unexplained phenomena and historical conspiracy theories. Movies, magazines and books were devoted to such diverse oddities as UFOs, cryptozoology, revisionist theories and anything that challenged the placidity of the too-easy-to-explain world.
In 1973, television caught this wacky vibe with the broadcast of “In Search of Ancient Astronauts.” This film was a truncated version of an unreleased 1970 German documentary based on Erich Von Daniken’s controversial book “Chariots of the Gods?”, and it put forward a straight-faced argument (courtesy of a Rod Serling narration) that extra-terrestrials may have played a role in creating the glorious engineering feats of ancient Egypt and the Mayan and Aztec kingdoms. The broadcast was a ratings success – the full-length German film of “Chariots of the Gods?” wound up being dubbed with a new English soundtrack and theatrically released in the U.S. a year later – and a sequel called “In Search of Ancient Civilizations” was aired in 1975, with Serling returning as the narrator.
Alan Landsburg Productions, the company behind the two films, decided that it could spin a weekly TV series based on the concept of exploring weird mysteries of science and history. For the era, this was fairly daring – no serious news show or educational television channel would dare to wade in these waters.
Not wishing to jinx a winning formula, the series was dubbed “In Search Of…” and it was supposed to use Serling as its narrator. Sadly, the “Twilight Zone” creator died before the series was going to ramp up. In his place, an ingenious choice was recruited: Leonard Nimoy, who could guarantee the sci-fi fanboy audience while offering a non-campy narration that gave credibility to the most ridiculous ideas. Really, who else but Mr. Spock could logically insist that there was a monster lurking below the Loch Ness waves or that Amelia Earhart survived her 1937 airplane crash and began a secret life as a New Jersey housewife?
“In Search Of…” had a diverse selection of topics to chase after. If there was a bizarre creature that dominated folklore while eluding cameras – Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster, the Ogopogo – “In Search Of…” went looking for it. If there were lost civilizations that needed to be recalled – Atlantis, Viking settlements in pre-Columbian Canada, the original Roanoke settlement – “In Search Of…” went hunting for them. If there were people whose fates were uncertain – Jesse James, the crew and passengers on the Mary Celeste, the Russian princess Anastasia, Michael Rockefeller, Jimmy Hoffa – they were also documented. And if there was plain old funky craziness that no one was confident to speak about in polite conversation – UFO abductions, the Bermuda Triangle, ghost photography – “In Search Of…” made it acceptable to discuss such topics on national television.
To its credit, the series never forcefully came out and insisted that Bigfoot was romping around the Pacific Northwest or that Jimmy Hoffa was buried under Giants Stadium. Instead, it carefully stated that such theories existed – the viewer was left to his or her own devices to accept or reject the considerations. Nor was a single explanation put forth per mystery – different theories would be trotted out and presented with the same level of respect and consideration. And considering that each episode lasted about 22 minutes, there was often a great deal of information to be stuffed between opening and closing credits.
As a result, “In Search Of…” pulled off a magic act worthy of Houdini (who was also the subject of an episode!). The show presented its material in a straightforward and scientific manner. A serious Nimoy would briefly appear on camera at the start of each episode to describe what was being investigated, and then he would disappear to off-camera narration while a wealth of vintage film footage, rare photographs and (where necessary) well-produced dramatic recreations were used to detail the subject matter.
In its own subtle way, the show encouraged people to question authority and not to blindly swallow the facts presented in mainstream media and history books. The genuinely edgy and curious viewers used “In Search Of…” as a launch pad to do their own research into mysterious and bizarre subjects, while the more passive viewers were happily exposed to notions that they would have probably never absorbed in other media outlets.
As a result, “In Search Of…” had a long and successful syndicated TV run, with 144 episodes broadcast between 1976 and 1982. For many younger people who were tuned in during those years (present company included), “In Search Of…” provided an introduction to the more interesting aspects of the human experience.
While most people remember “In Search Of…” for its aliens and monsters, the series also found its way into serious topics. Episodes relating to the medical condition that horribly disfigured John Merrick (also known as the Elephant Man), the escape of Nazi war criminals from Allied-occupied Europe, the suffering of the atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima, the fate of U.S. military personnel who were missing in action during the Vietnam War and the mass suicide at Jonestown were presented in a mature, non-exploitative manner.
“In Search Of…” had a second life in the 1990s, when it was rebroadcast on A&E and The History Channel. This go-round featured new opening credits and the removal of Nimoy’s on-camera narration, but the episodes were otherwise untouched. In 2002, a new version of the series with Mitch Pileggi as the narrator was broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel, but it never enjoyed any great popularity and was cancelled after eight episodes.
Today, fans of the program are on their own hunt – they are in search of “In Search Of…” The series was never packaged for home entertainment release – it is unclear why this never happened. As a result, it can only be appreciated via bootleg DVDs or unauthorized postings on sites like YouTube.
If you were around when “In Search Of…” was first-run, I can confirm that the series was as good as you may remember it. If you are approaching it for the first time, you will discover a fun, old-fashioned romp into alternative history.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!