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Nova looks into missing pilots and several other things in this over-packed episode.

TV Review: Nova – “Missing in MiG Alley”

Good intentions do not always make for good television.  Such is the case with Nova's latest episode, "Missing in MiG Alley."  What should be a fascinating look at technological, political, and military issues that developed during the Korean War is little more than a hodgepodge of stories that are far more interesting separately than together. 

The episode examines the circumstances under which several different pilots were shot down and captured during the war, the current push by the families of missing pilots to find their loved ones, and the official searches for the missing pilots.  There is also a discussion of the design of the MiG plane as well as the U.S. Sabre fighter jet, as well as a look into Russia's role during the Korean War.

There are no fewer than three or four good episodes of Nova here. 

The developments in fighter jet technology, including the swept-wing design that both the Sabre and the MiG used from Nazi designs, is fascinating.  The MiG's speed advantage over the Sabre was due to its using British Rolls-Royce engines given to the Russians by England, out of friendship following the Second World War.  These are interesting, salient facts around which an entire episode could be built.

Another episode could focus exclusively on politics of the day.  According to "Missing in MiG Alley," it has just recently come to light the that UN forces were not just battling Chinese and North Korean soldiers and airmen, but Soviet pilots as well.  The U.S.S.R. was using North Korea as a testing ground for pilots and planes, anticipating upcoming battles between the U.S. and itself. 

Then, finally, there is the story of all the lost pilots, and whether they were captured or killed.  The hunt for pilots shot down during Korea continues today, and is still a very fresh wound for the families of those missing. 

To a certain extent all these issues are intertwined.  The changes in fighter technology are, of course, related to the politics of the day.  The search for missing pilots is harder today than it may have been, because if a pilot lived after being shot down they could now be in North Korea, China, or Russia. 

There are numerous fascinating pieces of Nova's "Missing in MiG Alley," but the problem is that they are all disparate pieces, and not made into one, single, whole.  Watching the episode it seems as though three or four different stories are all cut together with little thought as to what the final result would look like. 

As an example, a former North Korean pilot talks to the camera early on in the episode about his experiences, and how North Korean pilots were not adequately trained on the MiG, they were taught about takeoff and landing and little else.  There is a passing, oblique, reference to the pilot having changed his name, but no reasons are given.  Later, near the end of "Missing in MiG Alley" the man returns.  It is at this point that the episode tells his tale, he defected at the end of the war, flying his plane from the North to the South, and landing safely. 

While this man's recollections about not being trained adequately may be accurate, surely it is necessary to state, when first giving his recollections, that he defected to the West.  His opinions and memories must, to some extent, be colored by this change in nationality.  Yet, nary a word is said when he first appears on camera.

Nova's "Missing in MiG Alley" suffers from a desire to do too much, and in making this attempt, does too little.  The stories of the missing are given short shrift, as is the science behind fighter jets, and the political realities of the Korean War.  There are several important, and interesting stories in the episode, but none are ever truly explored in the depth they deserve, nor given the chance to shine.

Nova – "Missing in MiG Alley" airs Tuesday December 18 at 8pm ET/PT, but check your local listings just to be sure.

About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.

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