The O.J. Simpson trial may have had the unintended effect of eroding people's confidence in DNA analysis, but the premiere edition of the new "Nova" season, "Anastasia: Dead or Alive?," shows that there are some problems a little DNA investigation won't solve.
Like so many "Nova" stories, this one revolves around a perplexing human mystery: What happened to Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas, whose royal Romanov family was executed by Bolshevik soldiers in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution? Long before exhumation of the mass grave of the family--which indicated that two Romanovs, including Anastasia, were missing--a woman calling herself Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia.
Suspicion hung over Anderson's assertions like a dark cloud, though, because certain details didn't come together. She appeared, for instance, just after a Polish factory woman named Franziska Shanzkowska vanished in 1920. While some Romanov intimates were convinced of Anderson's royal identity, most Romanov family members were not, and a German high court in 1967 ruled that Anderson had failed in her proof.
Enter science--and more confusion. High-definition computer imagery fully developed as an investigative tool too late for Anderson, who died an eccentric cat lover in 1984. Image analysis of photos of Anderson and Shanzkowska show them to be virtually identical, while the same analysis of the ears of Anastasia and Anderson also seem to suggest a match.
The final chapter in this fascinating search for identity keeps you tantalizingly in suspense until the last moment, but the real story behind "Anastasia: Dead or Alive?" is the conflict between the emotional knowledge claimed by Anderson's supporters, such as biographer Peter Kurth, and the objective data of biology. In a sense, it's the O.J. trial all over again.
* "Anastasia: Dead or Alive?" airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28. It repeats at 7 p.m. Saturday.