Ivanov begins looking for good Russian women willing to carry an ape-human mutant. Five offer their services.
— John Noble
The warbling theremin at the start of Dark Matters: Twisted But True indicates its focus on weeeeird sciiiiience. The same can be said for John Noble’s ersatz Orson Welles voice-over, a magisterial baritone with hints of jocularity just beneath the surface. These elements perfectly suit a series that evokes sci-fi camp — you can imagine an old EC comic emblazoned with the “Twisted!” tag — but is also respectable because it’s “true.” Dark Matters has something for viewers who are easily titillated as well as those interested in history.
Like a good carnival barker, the series premiere begins with the most sensational. Historical re-enactments introduce Morris K. Jessup, a UFO researcher who, in 1956, received a mysterious letter detailing secret government experiments. During World War II, the letter claimed, the United States Navy had collaborated with Albert Einstein, who had discovered a Unified Field Theory. Einstein’s breakthrough would enable man to manipulate time and space as never before; the Navy supposedly used it to develop a prototype invisibility cloak. Testing it on a battleship, though, they succeed not in hiding the ship, but teleporting it 250 miles away.
The show tells this story with breathless enthusiasm, even when it’s revealed to be barely true. (Albert Einstein was a real person.) Along the way, a physicist and a neuroscientist appear; the former testifies that yes, bending light around an object would render it invisible, the latter explains that directed electromagnetic radiation can affect the brain. Neither, obviously, endorses the story, well known in paranormal circles as “The Philadelphia Experiment.”
Instead, Jason Stroming, founder of the New York Paranormal Society, picks up the tale. It’s compelling, with government intrigue, time travel, patriotic sailors made mad by science, and Jessup’s “apparent suicide.” And it’s not so prosaic as one researcher’s hypothesis, that the whole saga grew out of confusion and confabulation about degaussing, an electromagnetic application that made Allied ships “invisible” to mines.
The presentation makes clear Dark Matters is not a freshman course in scientific ethics. Yes, it’s about the consequences of opening “doors that should stay closed,” as the ominous introduction puts it, but it casts its lot with the ecstasy of transgression. Opening those doors is precisely the point, offering viewers the vicarious thrill of pursuing hidden, even dangerous, knowledge. Alongside the token condemnations of scientific hubris, the show endorses a scientific worldview where closed doors are meant to be unlocked.
The second segment profiles Dr. Ilya Ivanov, a Soviet scientist who experimented with in-vitro fertilization to create several hybrid species. In the 1920s, his interest turned to crossbreeding apes with humans. Despite his repeated failures, Stalin steadfastly supported Ivanov’s efforts — until he didn’t. Growing increasingly wary of scientists, the dictator eventually exiled Ivanov, who died soon after.
Again, after noting the “ick” factor of Ivanov’s experiments, the show generally condones his endeavors. Choosing between Stalin and science may not seem like a grand dilemma, but given our current state of affairs regarding reality-based leadership, it may be more relevant than not. Dark Matters even gives Ivanov something of an admiring eulogy. In Courier font (the typewriter having become the official symbolic machinery of bygone bureaucracies), the segment concludes: “Most of Ivanov’s research has been lost. As far as we know, he never succeeded in creating an ape-man. As far as we know…”
This first episode’s final segment is the richest and most complex, involving Thomas Edison’s propagandizing against AC current in favor of his own DC current. The lengths to which Edison went to promote his own standard — electrocuting dogs, rabbits, and even an elephant — ought to shock the conscience. Yet his darkest moment, the decision he would regret for the rest of his life, came when he paid to have the first electric chair built. The chair used AC current, but seemingly not enough voltage. When turned on, it essentially cooked the prisoner, which Dark Matters illustrates by running current through a hot dog. It took eight minutes of electrocution for the prisoner, William Kemmler, to die.
The War of the Currents, as it was known, may illustrate not so much the dark side of science, but the dark side of business. Edison regretted his actions, and made a fortune on light bulbs even after universal adoption of AC current, winning even in losing. The inventor’s great mistake, it might be said, lay in insisting the doors he’d opened were the right ones, and then trying to all others closed.