Alibi V.16 No.32 • Aug 9-15, 2007 

Idiot Box

These are Not the Droids You’re Looking For

“Mind Control with Derren Brown” on Sci-Fi Channel

Derren Brown is not a psychic. He can’t actually read minds. He has no paranormal abilities whatsoever. And yet, he’s better at what he does than just about everybody on the planet who claims to have supernatural powers.

What Brown is, is a “mentalist.” He uses “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” to read people’s thoughts and to manipulate their behavior. Which sounds a bit subtle. What he does is anything but. For years, he’s played his psychological mind games on the people of England. Now, thanks to the Sci-Fi Channel, he’s got a stateside gig, which combines the best of his old U.K. series “Derren Brown: Mind Control” with new, shot-in-America material.

Each week, Brown does the seemingly impossible. Various segments have him stopping random people on the street and guessing how much money they have in their pockets to within a dollar, guessing how many fingers they are going to hold up, or puzzling in which hand they’ve hidden a rolled up bill. These segments are the basis of what Brown does. It’s called “cold reading.” It’s what most psychics do. Using subtle, often unconscious verbal and nonverbal clues, Brown is able to infer a great deal about his subjects. While an impressive gimmick to the uninitiated, “cold reading” is not that rare a skill.

Where Brown excels above and beyond your typical stage magician is in his stunning ability to take what he knows about people and manipulate them into doing just about anything. He’ll walk up to strangers and ask them to hand over their wallets, cell phones and car keys. He’ll walk into a high-end jewelry store and buy a $5,000 ring with a stack of blank paper. He’ll go to a dog track and claim huge sums of money on losing tickets. Sometimes he’ll just plain screw with folks, convincing them they are paralyzed or tricking an entire mall full of people into raising their hands at once or manipulating someone’s dreams as they sleep.

My only gripe is that “Mind Control” doesn’t put Brown’s stunts into much context. He’s best known as a dedicated skeptic, busting claims of the paranormal. In the past, he’s exposed trance mediums, New Age theorists and Christian Evangelicals. “Mind Control” mostly showcases Brown’s powers for a simple, “holy crap how did he do that?” response. In that respect, “Mind Control” works. Brown’s Jedi mind control powers are amazing, entertaining and sometimes freaky to behold. But it would be nice for the self-proclaimed “non-psychic” to give us a few insightful tips on what he’s doing to people and how. It might actually prevent us from getting swindled or manipulated in the future. Or it might give us the power to take over the world. Either way, we win.

“Mind Control with Derren Brown” airs every Thursday at 8 p.m. on Sci-Fi Channel.