TV Review: ‘Nova: Iceman Reborn’ Premieres Wednesday, February 17

Review by Justin Goodman

You’d think that a TV special titled Iceman Reborn would talk more about it’s titular subject—the highly preserved Stone Age mummy Ötzi—than the modeling and molding of a duplicate Ötzi by the professional sculptor of the prehistoric, Gary Staab. You’d also think, however, that the mummy’s name would have fewer pronunciations than Han Solo in the original Star Wars trilogy. You’d be wrong. So when Staab, discussing his hopes for the model later on, declares, “it’s all about Ötzi,” you should expect it to be about anything but him. This is typical of NOVA at this point, whose specials I’ve previously reviewed and who has gone the way of the History Channel. That’s not to say shows like Pawn Stars aren’t entertaining, but there’s limited space for the complexity of facts to exist with short interviews and dramatic cutaways overlaid with comically serious narration and music.

Ötzi was found by two German tourists on the Ötzai mountain range between Austria and Italy, originally thought to be a lost soldier from WWI, only later to be identified—by a copper axe, a longbow, and an arrowhead in the back—as the world’s oldest naturally preserved mummy. Iceman Reborn outlines these basics without mentioning the lawsuit that would be filed 12 years later by the Simons (those German tourists) to be declared the “official discoverers,” nor that, 2 years later, two others would claim to have found the body first before Mrs. Simons (her husband, Helmut, being long since deceased) and the provincial government would come to an out-of-court settlement. Nor does it mention the fact that the scientific claim regarding cause of death (bleeding out from the arrowhead) has no published and, therefore, confirmable evidence, even though two separate theories about how Ötzi got there in the first place exist. Instead of these political, historical, and scientific environments, that shroud Ötzi in a Christ-like mystery, there is Staab’s 3-D modeling peppered with middle school scientific facts.

That aside, it is interesting to see how the Ötzi on display at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory got there. It’s less the exploration of discovery promised, and more the story of a craft seen on a show like Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, but it’s also exactly what NOVA would market itself as were it honest with itself: Iceman Reborn is the story of an old approach science (represented by the specialist on Ötzi, Dr. Albert Zink) meeting a new approach (the craftsmanship of Gary Staab). Once Staab finishes painting and toning the fake Ötzi’s skin, Zink comes to inspect how authentic it is. Several comparison shots before the encounter suggest that, despite its flaws, it is impressively exact in detail. In the post-observation interview, Zink proclaims that for a second he felt “that the mummy’s outside of his freezer, it’s too dangerous.” Regardless of how convincing the replica is, it’s hard to fake the degree of awkward and rubbery interaction between the two men who stand there bobbing their heads.

Cold Spring Harbor is the location of the original discovery of DNA itself, which allowed NOVA to give James Watson a cameo. And probably some money, as the many controversies surrounding the man—charges of homophobia, sizeism, racism, etc.—has lost him income and forced him to auction his Nobel Prize in 2014 (it was returned afterwards by the buyer). By the time he makes his appearance though, we’ve learned that Ötzi’s living genetic descendants can be traced to Sardinia and Corsica, islands off the Italian coast. The distance between the two is equivalent to the distance between Staab and Watson. They meet briefly and uneventfully; more intimately, “like dropping a child off for the first day of school,” the artist stands before his creation. Expecting the resonance of deep symbolism, time slows down as the two stare at each other contentedly. It’s difficult to tell which of the two is more authentic.

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