PBS, WNET’s New Titanic Documentary Stays Afloat From Beginning To End Despite Its Setup

Courtesy: PBS/WNET

More than 100 years have passed since the R.M.S. Titanic sank in the waters of the North Atlantic.  In the century-plus since that tragedy happened, leading to the deaths of approximately 1,500 people, much has been said and written of the events of April 15, 1912.  From examinations off the Titanic’s construction, to the action (and possible inaction) of its Captain, to the accuracy of the descriptions of its sinking, so much ground has been covered about what is among the worst maritime disasters in modern history.  Early this past October, PBS and WNET added another topic to that list of discussions with the new episode of Secrets of the Dead: Abandoning the Titanic.  It is unknown at this point whether the program will see a home release anytime soon, but regardless the program is streaming free in the meantime.  The nearly hour-long program is a presentation that while imperfect, will still appeal to a wide range of viewers.  That is due in part to its central discussion, that of whether the passengers and crew of the Titanic were in fact abandoned and if so, by which ship.  This will be discussed shortly.  While that discussion, which takes up the second half of the program, ensures viewers’ engagement and entertainment, the program’s first half detracts somewhat from the episode’s overall presentation.  It will be discussed a little later.  The visual effects and recordings used to help tell the story round out the doc’s most important elements.  They will also be discussed later.  Each item noted here is important in its own way to the whole of the program.  All things considered, they make Secrets of the Dead: Abandoning The Titanic a presentation that while imperfect, is still well worth watching.

PBS and WNET’s recently debuted Secrets of the Dead episode Abandoning The Titanic is a presentation that will appeal to a wide range of audiences.  Students and lovers of maritime history and those of history in general will find something to like about this program.  That is due in part to its central discussion.  The discussion in question is that of whether the Titanic’s passengers and crew were abandoned by another ship that was in range of the doomed liner, and if so, which ship abandoned them.  This discussion takes up the second half of the nearly hour-long program.  This aspect will be discussed a little more at length shortly.  While it only takes up the second half of the program, the depth of that discussion ensures viewers’ engagement and entertainment in its own right.  The exact location of the Titanic at the time of its sinking is examined in comparison to that of other ships in the area.  That examination is provided to show proximity of the closest ships, of which there were two:  the Californian and the Mount Temple.  As the examination proceeds, viewers are taken briefly into World War I history to learn that one of the two ships did indeed abandon the Titanic, and that had the ship in question responded to the emergency, every life on board the “unsinkable” giant might have actually been saved.  Even more interesting is that the examination concludes by exonerating the Captain of the other ship while also firmly pointing the ultimate blame on the Captain of the Titanic for his inaction early on that led to the fateful collision.

There is no denying that the investigation of which ship abandoned the passengers and crew of the Titanic is in itself engaging.  It alone makes this recently debuted episode of Secrets of the Dead worth watching.  For all that this element does for the overall episode’s presentation, the episode’s first half counters that success.  The first half of Abandoning The Titanic is spent telling the same story that audiences have heard countless times.  It is just the story of how the Titanic made its way into the North Atlantic ice field that ultimately led to the collision that sank the ship.  The already known matters of how warnings about the ice field from other ships were ignored and the alleged inaction of the ship’s Captain are raised once more.  For the most part, the first half of the program does little more than set the stage once again.  So while maybe it does play some kind of part to the bigger story, it is a part of the program that audiences can largely skip past while streaming the episode.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the story that is even noteworthy is that of the examination of the bilge pumps.  It is revealed in the initial set up that the Titanic’s bilge pumps were not set up to handle the widespread flooding that the Titanic took on following its collision.  Rather they were set up for “localized” flooding, as one of the interviewed “experts” explains.  That is a topic that has rarely if ever been addressed in previous docs from other sources about the Titanic.  It adds yet another layer to that story.  Other than that aspect though, there is little else to really interest audiences.  The mention of the ship on the horizon is brief at best and is not even really re-visited in depth until approximately 32 minutes into the 55-minute program.  To that end, audiences will be encouraged to watch the one noted brief discussion about the bilge pumps in the first half, but skip through everything else featured in that portion of the program.  The real engaging portion of the program comes, again, approximately 32 minutes into its run time.  That portion of the program, along with the visuals used to help tell the story, make the whole worth watching at least occasionally.

The visualizations that are used to help tell the story of the Titanic’s abandonment are obviously aesthetic elements, but they do help ensure viewers’ engagement and entertainment, even through the first half of the program.  There is a lot of footage used from vintage movies focused on the Titanic to help show how people reacted as the ship sank.  The morse code messages sent between ships leading up to Titanic’s sinking help are superimposed on screen.  It drives home the lack of action taken on the part of Titanic’s crew.  Also used are photos of the crews from the ships and even photos of the hearings that were held following Titanic’s sinking to help illustrate the story.  There are even CG depictions of how the Titanic collided with the noted iceberg and slowly fell beneath the cold waters of the North Atlantic.  The one thing that these depictions get wrong is how high the ship’s back end rose as the bow went below the water line.  It has already been proven in past documentaries that the Titanic’s back end never rose as high as so many depictions show.  Rather, it only rose a few feet above the water than the hugely inverted angle so often shown.  That aside, the CG depictions in general work with all of the other noted visualizations to help tell the story of the ship’s sinking and abandonment, stressing what could have been.  It all collectively works with the story (including the first half) to add even more appeal to the overall presentation and make it worth watching at least occasionally.

Secrets of the Dead: Abandoning The Titanic is an interesting addition to the long-running series that will appeal to a wide range of audiences.  That is proven in part through the program’s examination of whether in fact the passengers and crew of the ship were abandoned by another ship’s crew, and if so, which ship and its crew.  That examination comes in the second half of the nearly hour-long presentation.  The first half of the program is largely able to be ignored, since it sets up the second half, telling a story that most everyone knows.  The one positive to the first half of the program comes in the brief discussion about the failings of the ship’s bilge pumps.  Other than that one aspect, audiences can largely just avoid the program’s first half.  The visualizations that are used to help tell the story are aesthetic, but they do their own share to keep viewers engaged and entertained.  They make sure that audiences will be able to see the words spoken and written rather than just hear them.  They also personalize the story by showing the pictures of the figures involved in the story.  What’s more, they also give glimpses into the events that followed the Titanic’s sinking, as well as much more.  Between this aspect, the in-depth examination of the Titanic’s abandonment, and even the one detail added to the first half of the program, the overall presentation of Secrets of the Dead: Abandoning the Titanic makes itself a show that stays well afloat from start to end.  The documentary is streaming now.

More information on this and other episodes of Secrets of the Dead is available online now at:

Websitehttp://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets

Facebookhttp://www.facebook.com/SecretsofTheDead

Twitterhttp://twitter.com/SecretsPBS

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