Hidden City Zodiac KillerThe Travel Channel’s Hidden City is the latest show to dedicate air time to the subject of the Zodiac. The hour-long episode covers three San-Francisco topics, the other two being Harvey Milk and gold-rush era vigilantism. You can find episode information and a written summary of the show on the Travel Channel’s website. Also on the website are two short video clips, partially taken from the episode: A Real-Life Riddler and How to Crack the Code (this latter title is a bit of an overstatement). Unfortunately, the Travel channel doesn’t support embedding their video, so you’ll have to use the links.

The content of the Zodiac segment is reasonably good – no earth-shattering revelations, but it’s solid. Also, it’s clear that the executive producer’s goal was to create a casual yet compelling treatment of the subject matter that is defined more by the show’s characteristic look and feel than a desire to cover every last detail. This approach is not a shortcoming; it works well.

I do have a few criticisms of the episode, but they’re minor. For example, the host, Marcus Sakey, and others consistently used the misnomer “code” instead of the word “cipher” when speaking of the Zodiac’s ciphers (a code is created by replacing words or phrases whereas a cipher is constructed by replacing letters). Admittedly, this inaccuracy is common and relatively few people know or care about the distinction. Still, I would have appreciated the correct terminology. Also, I was a bit dismayed to see Arthur Leigh Allen presented as a viable suspect. But then again, people are entitled to their opinions.

Zodiac Cipher Image

Part of a Zodiac Cipher

One intriguing aspect of paying attention to the case of the Zodiac over an extended period of time are the new and different ways people find to approach the various topics. Generally speaking, the fundamental facts of the case have not changed much in, roughly, forty years. Certainly, there are occasional developments. However, truly substantive additions to the case evidence are few and far between. So, to compensate for addressing a subject that has been undeniably well covered, people often search for new and interesting avenues of approach.

Hidden City’s Zodiac segment has a noteworthy instance of this phenomenon. Marcus Sakey visited with Professor Byron Walden, a creator of crossword puzzles, in order to gain insight into the mind of the Zodiac; the premise being that the Zodiac’s ciphers were effectively puzzles and hence the Zodiac, himself, was a puzzle maker. Admittedly, this is a creative and original idea. However, in the final analysis, I cannot say that I came away with any deeper insight into the criminal or his crimes. Nonetheless, for people unfamiliar with the case, the discussion provided an interesting context in which to examine the ciphers.

At the same time, I wish the episode would have gone a few steps further in terms of explaining the ciphers. There was an example showing how a simple substitution ciphers works, i.e. replacing letters with other letters or symbols.  Relatedly, there was some discussion explaining how one can break such ciphers by looking for commonly used letters, a description of a technique known as frequency analysis. What was missing was the further explanation that the Zodiac used multiple symbols per letter in order to disguise the frequency characteristics of the enciphered letters. Consequently, things are not as simple as one might think given the explanations in the show.

But don’t let my minor dissatisfaction dissuade you from checking out the episode. Overall, it’s well done and worth your time.