Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Secrets In The Bones: A Mediaeval Mystery

So far it's been a strong season for CBC-TV's venerable The Nature Of Things but I feel this week's edition Secrets In The Bones is so far the best of the bunch.
The hour plays like a mediaeval mystery that finally gets unlocked.
And it zooms far, far back to the Black Death that ravaged Europe peaking in the years 1348 to 1350 and resulting in the death of almost half the population.
This fast paced documentary finds a Canadian angle in the work at McMaster University of evolutionary biologist Hendrik Poinar who served as point man on an international team trying to unlock the secrets of this rampaging pandemic.
His father George Poinar was one of the scientists who inspired Michael Crichton to write Jurassic Park --the elder Poinar was able to pluck out the DNA of insects captured in amber.
And to make all this immediately relevant there's the horrid saga of an Oregon man who last year contracted bubonic plague after he was bitten by a cat who had killed a rodent infected with the disease.
The clips show his toes and fingers rapidly blackened and had to be cut off and he was put on life support and very near death. His recovery is tentative --he can never return to his welding job.
Poinar says the plague is constantly mutating --hence his desire to isolate it in the bones of victims who died over 600 years ago.
The subject is terrific but it needs visuals or we'd just be stuck with a bunch of talking heads.
Great footage has Poinar journeying to a site in a once thriving mediaeval Italian village and finding a cache of victims long ago buried in the hospital's underground caverns.
That helps personalize the statistics and so does a visit to another cache in London that was unearthed during excavation for a modern structure.
The charnel house has upwards of 20,000 victims of the plague and these vivid shots show us how widespread the suffering was.
The idea was to take teeth from these victims and try to discover the secrets of the plague --it takes a year of hit and miss testing before the DNA of the plague can be isolated and studied.
Of course there are other mysteries to be solved. If up to 50 per cent of the population survived why were they spared?
What differentiated them from the victims?
Because Poinar seems sure the deaths were caused by more than one pathogen.
And why did the plague suddenly subside? It's another mystery still needing answers.
Liam O'Rinn wrote and produced it for Infield Fly Productions (executive producer Dugald Maudsley).
O'Rinn has done an outstanding job of finding just the right visuals to illustrate this 600-year old mystery story.
In fact as I watched I kept thinking all the ingredients are here for a big budgeted theatrical movie.
MY RATING: ****.

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