Picks and Pans Review: The Explorers: a Century of Discovery

UPDATED 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

As a device for building up the old rah-rah company morale—the company in this case being the National Geographic Society—this 90-minute tape would be serviceable. As pride-of-the-line documentary, a celebration of the Society's 100th birthday and a commercial product that is not inexpensive, it ranges from the deceptive to the fascinating to the disappointing. The deception come: from the title and from the publicity promising a celebration of a century of exploration. The tape itself is limited to explorative project: affiliated with the Society. That means among other omissions, there is not even at allusion to the most astonishing exploration of this or any other century: man's first tentative trips into space. The Explorers does in elude plenty of absorbing segments. There is film footage of Alexander Graham Bell, Society benefactor and father-in-law of the firs successful editor of National Geographic magazine, Gilbert H. Grosvenor. It's still exciting to see period film of the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt in 1920. Melodramatic newsreel coverage of Admiral Richard Byrd's 1929 flight to the South Pole is both comic and thrilling. There is also the amazingly foolhardy Citroën-Haardt Trans-Asiatic Expedition of 1932, which attempted to follow Marco Polo's overland route from Beirut to Peking but had to give up when its motor vehicles couldn't get over the Himalayas. (At one point the vehicles were dismantled and carried piece by piece.) There is film of Jane Goodall with her chimpanzees and Dian Fossey with her gorillas and of Robert D. Ballard's discovery of the Titanic in 1985. There are also such anticlimactic expeditions as the Society-sponsored first ail-American climb of Mount Everest—ail-American except for the Nepalese guides, of course—in 1963. And a segment about a Geographic photographer on assignment in Turkey looks like something from a bad commercial. Throughout there is a self-serving tone. Melville Bell Grosvenor, Gilbert H.'s son, is said to have edited the Society magazine for "10 brilliant years." Nicolas Noxon, the usually accomplished writer of a number of Society science tapes, overwrites when he isn't being actually sycophantic toward his employers. All this is a particular letdown because the National Geographic TV documentaries and subsequent videotape releases have so often been scintillating examples of how to turn education into entertainment. In this case, The Explorers will be shown on television on PBS on Oct. 12, after its videotape release. Everyone would be better off spending their time with a copy of such previous Geographic titles as Land of the Tiger or Miniature Miracle: The Computer Chip (Vestron, $29.98)

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