Looking Back At ARTHUR C. CLARKE'S MYSTERIOUS WORLD - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal explores the mysterious.
Bigfoot. The Loch Ness Monster. Sea Monsters. UFOs. These are just a few of the topics that have, over the decades, drawn in television makers seeking to produce documentaries on the odd and the unexplained here on Earth and beyond. Programs and even series that have, for better or worse, delved into sensationalism and muddied the waters. One of the series that stands out from the pack aired four decades ago on Britain's ITV network and bucked the trend to a large extent. Fronted by one of the world's most famous authors, it offered a sober look at those topics and much more. That series was Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World.

Clarke, introduced at the start of every episode as "the author of 2001 and inventor of the communications satellite," was an ideal choice to act as frontman of the series, appearing around his adopted home on the island of Sri Lanka. As a writer of science fact and fiction, Clarke had addressed many of the topics discussed in the series, including in the aforementioned 2001 (both on-page and screen) and novels such as The Deep Range. And, as a self-confessed lover of mysteries used to appearing in programs such as The Sky at Night and news coverage of the Apollo moon landings, he was what we'd term today a "media personality."
Clarke's presence had another effect on the series. What sets Mysterious World apart from a series like the Lenoard Nimoy fronted In Search Of I watched as a youngster in re-runs on the History Channel or other paranormal-focused series, even after forty years, is its tone. Perhaps because of Clarke, a name in both science fact and fiction, acting as frontman, the series never dives headlong into sensationalism. Instead, there's a very British sense of reserve, whether it's delving into sea serpents, frogs raining from the sky, or the hypothetical planet Vulcan. With newscaster Gordon Honeycombe bringing his sensible readings to bear as the series narrator, Mysterious World also has a more serious air to it, with each half-hour episode serving as something of a crash course on that week's topic.

And what topics the series covers. With its first episode serving as an introduction to the tone and a taster of what it'll explore, Mysterious World dives headlong into them. There's the usual fare mentioned at the top of this review, of course. Yet there's also what Clarke terms "classical mysteries," such as those featured in the penultimate episode Strange Skies, which deals with astronomical mysteries. There are also episodes dedicated to ancient stone circles, the 1908 Tunguska event, and seemingly anachronistic ancient artifacts such as the crystal skull that serves as the series defacto logo. The series wraps up with a catch-all episode, "Clarke's Cabinet of Curiosities," covering everything from Death Valley's sailing stones to ball lightning. It's a wide-ranging show, and in many ways, a half-hour only scratches the surface of the topics on parade despite featuring experts and witnesses alike. Remarkably for a series as old as Mysterious World is, it manages to be informative even today.
Of course, Mysterious World has aged in places. It would be surprising if it hadn't, given how much time has passed. Some of its mysteries, such as the sailing stones, have been effectively solved. Others continue to be the subject of debate, such as the renewed interest in the UFO topic or superseded by ongoing research in the case of Stonehenge in the stone circles episode. Even so, aspects of even those episodes have points of interest, highlighting other mysteries or serving as time capsules of known facts at the time.

And thanks to Clarke's work as frontman and its serious tone, Mysterious World remains as watchable as ever. Aired for the first time across the autumn of 1980, this time of year is perfect for revisiting it. For as the nights get darker a little earlier, how can one not wonder about the world around us and the things that, even now, we're only just beginning to understand?

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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