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Who put those Chinese seals in Mrs Murphy's peat bog?
The entire medium of television would be radically different (and probably a lot more limited) if not for the achievements of Sir Arthur C Clarke, who devised the idea of communication satellites. Clarke has long been respected for his work as a scientist and for his high-tech science fiction. Less well known is the fact that Arthur C Clarke has a long-standing interest in Fortean phenomena: not the paranormal nor the supernatural, but bizarre occurrences at the borders of known science that force us to examine the rules of how the universe works.
I met Arthur C Clarke during the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, where we had a long talk over drinks in the bar of the Brighton Metropole while discussing one of Arthur C Clarke's favourite subjects: cryptozoology, the serious study of species that have not been conclusively shown to exist, such as the Yeti and the Sasquatch. That subject dominates one episode of 'Mysterious World'.
Arthur C Clarke's participation in 'Mysterious World' is minimal -- largely confined to sound-bites of him expressing his opinions as he walks along a Sri Lankan beach -- yet vital. As this sort of topic is always viewed with scepticism, this series would never have been produced at all if Clarke had not brought to it his very respected reputation and his scientific gravitas. Apart from his name, Clarke's contribution consisted only of brief intros and afterpieces, and a few suggestions for topics. The series itself was written, produced and narrated by other people, less famous than Clarke but no less devoted to the study of Fortean phenomena.
'Mysterious World' is comparable to the American syndicated series 'In Search of...', but that series cast its net too widely and set its credulity level too low. Guided by Arthur C Clarke's reputation, 'Mysterious World' makes a creditable effort to reject anything that can't stand up to scientific analysis.
The episode devoted to cryptozoology ends with Clarke reminding us that, if Sasquatch and Yeti do exist, we have an obligation to respect them and protect their environment.
This excellent series is notable for film clips difficult to find elsewhere. Quite a few Fortean round-ups have mentioned the Tunguska incident of 1908; 'Mysterious World' offers actual footage from the first expedition to that site.
Some of the topics featured in this series (and in Arthur C Clarke's companion series 'World of Strange Powers') are bizarre and unexpected, such as the little-known mystery of Ireland's Chinese seals. Over the course of a century, more than a dozen porcelain seals from dynastic China have been found in bogs and other obscure locations throughout Ireland. The seals have been authenticated, yet nobody can explain how they landed up in Ireland. Nor were they in a single trove; they were found in many different places all over Ireland, over a long period of time. It beggars belief that these artefacts might have been planted deliberately as a hoax. How did they get to Ireland, and when?
The problem for a show like 'Mysterious World' (or the fondly remembered 'One Step Beyond', treating similar subject matter) is that it must offer the audience questions which it cannot responsibly answer. The known facts are offered, some intelligent conjecture is entertained. But for a conclusive answer to the riddle of the Chinese seals - or the existence of the Yeti - the producers of this series can only say: 'Sorry, but we really don't know.'
'Mysterious World' is a fascinating series, but ultimately unsatisfying since it deals with unknowns. The last episode, indeed, is a sort of omnium-gatherum of all the Fortean bits and bobs that didn't fit into earlier episodes. I highly recommend this series, but fans of Arthur C Clarke should be advised that his participation is minimal. My rating: 10 in 10.
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