The first episode of Houdini's Last Secrets aired tonight on the Science Channel. Based on what it offered, it looks like this 4-part series might be a mixed bag. While there are some good interviews and peeks inside some nice collections, there's also the typical reality TV hokum about spy work and murder theories. But the real hot button is the show's promise to reveal Houdini's secrets. So do they?
This first episode, "The Torture Escape", investigates Houdini's Water Torture Cell, and in the end you are led to believe that they've discovered and exposed the secret of Houdini's most famous escape. But they actually did no such thing. They created their own luxuriously large cell and their own means of release which is not how Houdini's cell looked or worked. And as far as learning the secret from David Haversat's two page Houdini design (an incredible artifact!), know that the production had already built their cell and filmed their escape sequence before they ever saw that document, which doesn't reveal the real secret anyway.
So this is really a faux exposure of the Water Torture Cell in the tradition of R.D. Adams and others. Does that make it okay? That's something to debate, but I admit I'm relieved. I knew the production had Patrick Culliton's book Houdini The Key, so they could have gone all the way and didn't. For that I'm thankful.
For me the greater offense was devoting a good chuck of the episode to the notion that Houdini was a spy. You may have even gotten the impression from my own interview that I'm somewhat onboard with this idea, which I am absolutely NOT. In fact, I recall giving a very clear and strong repudiation of the entire theory, but that hit the cutting room floor. It's a shame to see this pseudohistory once again getting attention, but Hollywood just can't resist a spy story.
Speaking of inaccuracies, in my interview I said Houdini never did a diving suit escape. This is not strictly true. He did once accept a non-submerged diving suit challenge, and he escaped from a diving suit in The Master Mystery. So I'm sorry I said that.
On the upside, the series has a cool title sequence, George Hardeen is a natural (must run in the family), and seeing John Magic's museum and his excellent Water Torture Cell replica was a treat. And who knew former CIA Director John McLaughlin was a Houdini buff? I also liked the swimming pool test when they were working with dimensions similar to Houdini's cell, which shows just how constricting it really was. Of course, they don't mention the inner cage Houdini used that constricted the inside of the cell even more, and would have made turning around in the way magician Lee Terbosic did so impossible.
So it looks like this series will ride an ethical razors edge. While not revealing Houdini's actual methods, they are technically still doing exposures, so I can see them getting some heat for this. But at least the first episode is behind us and the secret of the Water Torture Cell is safe. We'll see what comes next!
Houdini's Last Secrets airs on the Science Channel and the SciGO app. You can also stream the episodes at their website. I've launched an Episode Guide HERE.
If you're interested in more information on Houdini's Water Torture Cell, check out these links: