My tastes in entertainment have matured as TV’s efforts to sensationalize myths and tell titillating tales have evolved. Still, nothing prompts my imagination quite like ancient unsolved riddles, a big factor in my decision to write historical fantasy novels.
It’s fun to speculate that there are bizarre truths behind mysterious stories. From Sasquatch to ESP to UFOs, I’ve always been a fan of weird stuff. Give it a paranormal twist—throw in some vampires or poltergeists—and I’m riveted. Package it all as a quasi-documentary/semi-reality TV show with Leonard Nimoy as host, and you have one of my favorites from the 1970s. The incredibly popular In Search Of… presented speculation and conjecture as possible explanations for enduring mysteries such as the identify of Jack the Ripper or the truth about the lost continent of Atlantis.
In Search Of… was informative, fun, and nerdy, providing some ambiguous answers and leaving the door open for other (more plausible) explanations. It was lightweight entertainment, but it turned me on to some real enduring mysteries: Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, the Nazca Plains, the mystery of Roanoke Colony, the genius of Nikola Tesla, and so much more.
Today I am an avid fan of Josh Gates and his series Expedition Unknown. Gates, a scholar with an appetite for exotic food and amazing adventures, is a man-mountain of globe-trotting curiosity. He’s an archaeologist with an infectious enthusiasm for the bizarre who seeks the truth about ancient and historical mysteries. To get at the real story behind whatever myth or legend he’s investigating, Gates employs scientific research methods presented as heart-pounding adventures filmed around the world.
Expedition Unknown has taken Gates to some of the most remote and dangerous locations on the planet. Indiana Jones would be impressed by his ability to access and explain never-before-seen artifacts while getting into some precarious circumstances. On each mission, Gates interacts with the people and shares impressions of the culture he’s visiting. He also indulges in the local cuisine, a segment that should come with a warning for the squeamish.
Combining elements of travelogue with lessons in history and sociology, Gates takes the viewer on a journey of discovery filled with humor. Turn him loose in a tourist souvenir shop and he becomes a stand-up comedian. Put an obstacle in his path and he entertains viewers (and his camera crew) with groan-worthy one-liners.
Gates peels away the thin veneer of supposition, superstition, and sensationalism to reveal the solid truth at the core of legends and mysteries. Mostly, though, he makes history fun and accessible through investigating both familiar and little-known unsolved puzzles. What a marvelous way to exploit television’s ability to entertain and teach at the same time.