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On That BBC Film
• The public still awaits an adequate film treatment of Velikovsky and his work.
Controversy never lags far behind Velikovsky or the public discussion of his work, and the BBC documentary, "Worlds in Collision," has proved no exception. Velikovsky himself felt mocked by the show, which he viewed as a tragedy of misrepresentation. Yet, to one of his detractors in England the program was an "act of homage" to the one-time heretic. A leading British scientist wrote to producer Brian Gibson: "Your program--was the most discreditable to the BBC that I have ever seen"--too sympathetic to Velikovsky, that is. And a reader tells us that sales of Velikovsky's book turned upward immediately after the program was shown twice last January.
Clearly Gibson set himself no enviable task, given the violently contradictory reactions Velikovsky's name evokes, and he seems to have striven for fairness throughout. This is evidenced by the documentary's continual narrative juxtaposition of statements favorable and unfavorable to Velikovsky:
-- "There are some who think he's a kind of modern Galileo, that he is possibly the greatest scientist who ever lived. Others regard his work as simply that of a highly intelligent crank."
-- An astronomer: "I think that he is wrong, but at the very least he is magnificently wrong." Immediately followed by an unidentified observer: "I expect he is one of the top five or ten intuitive physical scientists that the world has ever known."
-- "Orthodox scientists have good reasons for rejecting this work ... But there is further and persuasive evidence supporting Velikovsky . . ."
But such an approach is bound to infuriate both sides, and indeed fairness consists of more than merely balancing words. Certain objective facts need to be recognized, and are only too easily obscured. For example, the continuing and frequent references in popular reviews to "Velikovsky: brilliant scientist or sophisticated crank?" --while admittedly making readable journalistic copy--are both humiliating and unfair when applied to a man whose scholarly contributions in numerous fields are confirmed and unquestioned. That at one time a group of prominent but now discredited "authorities" found it to their advantage to describe Velikovsky in such libelous terms gives no similar license to others. Think of the reaction if such a question were asked of any other well-known scholar today.
Nor is the film script fair in introducing Velikovsky as "an unorthodox scientist who has already become a cult figure in the United States," and who lives in "scholarly isolation." (Somehow, Velikovsky's lecture at the NASA Ames Research Center, the "Velikovsky Symposium" at Lewis and Clark College, and the appearance of a journal given over to f a discussion of Velikovsky's work never get mentioned in the film.)
Worse still are factual errors in the narrative. Velikovsky is said to have contended that "the Jews had escaped from. catastrophes which had annihilated other races," whereas in fact Worlds in Collision makes it clear that many Israelites were killed. The event which brought down the walls of Jericho is equated with that later cataclysm which caused a disturbance in the sun's motion while Joshua led the Israelites in battle. And on Velikovsky's prediction of strong remanent magnetism on the moon, the narrator quite mistakenly claims that "others expected it and said that such a prediction is not remarkable." No other such prediction has yet to be produced, and the remanent magnetism remains one of the greatest lunar puzzles for investigators.
But worst of all, perhaps, is the misstatement of Velikovsky's reasoning (inevitable, it seems, in a relatively brief, popular presentation) in such a way as to render it highly objectionable to an informed and critical listener. In explaining why Velikovsky believes the moon's surface to have been recently molten, the narrator says, "Homer tells us that the Greek goddess of the moon was warned not to battle with Mars but to leave this task to Earth, being herself destined to the sweet work of love. But the goddess, the Iliad tells us, was smote on the breast and her heart melted." No mention of the conversion of motion to heat during near collisions - the mechanical consideration which led Velikovsky to his conclusion. For all the sweetness of the goddess' heart, its "melting" is hardly sufficient evidence for claiming a molten lunar surface, and one can hear the derisive laughter of hard-nosed scientists at the supposed chain of logic.
Finally, the narrator manages to squeeze in the inevitable sociological analysis: Citing the "anti-rational mood of America," he continues: "Why do Velikovsky's views find such sympathy? Perhaps because what he has to say is so much fuller than the gray, conventional view of man's history and that of the solar system. And he offers his listeners a total theory, one which appears to explain everything, even the origins of religions." Well, at least we can allow that such irrelevancies are normal journalistic fare these days.
For all the faults one can find in the film if he looks hard enough, it does an adequate job of summarizing Worlds in Collision, in a brief space. And some of Velikovsky's most strikingly vindicated advance claims (concerning Jupiter and Venus) are cited, interspersed with comments pro and con by supporters and opponents. The film's editorial position was obviously and admirably intended to be neutral--a neutrality for which the BBC undoubtedly came under fire from certain quarters.
Gibson succeeded in producing a lively, highly listenable and detached portrayal of a man surrounded by controversy. The difficulties encountered are those which seem inseparable from such a short, general, and popular account of an exceedingly complex and technical debate. They are the very difficulties which have made Velikovsky continually refuse well-intended proposals from the media. (The filming of the BBC documentary itself was delayed over a year owing to Velikovsky's belief that, as originally conceived, it could not begin to do justice even to the most essential facts of the controversy surrounding his work.)
Nevertheless, with increasing attention being given Velikovsky by the film media, we can hope that there shall soon emerge a thorough, in-depth documentary prepared by a major network under the close scholarly supervision of someone acquainted both with Velikovsky's work and the more orthodox perspectives of the relevant scientific and historical disciplines. The dramatic potential of such a film is unlimited; its educational value, in view of the continuing debate about the status of Velikovsky's theories, could be enormous.
PENSEE Journal V