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Television: My Faith, Humanity Restored

Despite my involvement in the premiere pop culture blogulator, I have minimal to no interest in this fall's television season. I will dabble as I await the fall of my final fortress - Battlestar Galactica -, but otherwise I've fully devoted myself to the noblest of pursuits (video games) with a side serving of books and pornography.

Somehow, though, this lost soul stumbled upon a presentation that moved him more than any other in recent memory. It was a 2-year old, one-episode, 2-hour special, hovered upon only because its title sounded Roddenberrian. Trek: Spy in the Waterhole, a documentary about wildebeest migration, restored my faith in the television medium. And I only watched the last 30 minutes of it.

When I first began watching, I was ready to immediately flip away. Nature documentaries are infamous for their sadistic love of the food chain, and our protagonist - an unnamed wildebeest calf - was currently swimming across a pond full of hippos and crocs. Miraculously, he emerged from the pond unharmed, only to realize that he was now separated from his mother and his herd. Joining a group of zebras instead - apparently pack animals don't mind hanging out with each other for protection - he encountered a baby impala (see picture) who had also been separated from her family. The impala thought the wildebeest was her mom, so she started following him around. Now, our hero didn't know what to do with this situation at first, much like all strong heroes from all action features. But before he knew it, he'd warmed to the child... whose real family then appeared. The impala ran to her mom. The zebras abandoned the wildebeest. And he was alone again, stuck in a world that didn't want him to survive.


I'm tempted to go into more detail about the adventure (cheetahs come next), but it's not just the simple narrative of beast versus beast versus nature versus good versus carnivores that won me over. It was the combination of characters I actually cared about and an experience hard to find this side of the ocean.

Characters: I wanted the wildebeest to survive, and I could see the fear and desperation in his eyes. This was not Patricia Arquette delivering her constipated "I've had a vision and why won't anyone believe me" look. This was the real deal. Do human actors have the disadvantage of not actually being in danger? Yes (which is, for better or for worse, the idea that drove the plot of Tropic Thunder). Still, I think my complaint is justified by the fact that so few shows manage to create characters I should care about at all. I've said this before, but I have no reason to care whether the butcher from Act 1 or the baker from Act 2 murdered the sexy college student from the teaser. Real life murder stories hardly interest me (see Nancy Grace), and fictional ones even less so. Sorry, Fringe. I heard about your murdered plane passengers, but I don't really see how that plot addresses any human urge beyond curiosity; which is why I will treat the show with little more than curiosity myself.

The emotions I most feel - including panic at the uncertainty of my future - were better represented in this wildebeest than in almost any character on television today. I don't care about murder or romance, or even bromance, right now. I care about figuring out where I'm going and how I'm going to get there. Does Lost explore this concept? Maybe, but it's still too cartoony to really motivate me to watch it. Battlestar (whose cartoonism I illogically manage to suspend) and Generation Kill (thanks to its nonfictional nature) come to mind as shows that do begin to - as I now say - "feel the wildebeest."

I don't really say that.

Experience: Television is supposed to provide us with stories that we want to be a part of. I guess a lot of people want to imagine themselves in a police environment - perhaps to empower themselves in an increasingly unfamiliar (or possibly an increasingly sterile?) world. And I do not deny the intrigue of this setting. Cops and doctors have a real, tangible impact on the world around them, which is something we all want to have. But more and more television is playing the same note in its tellings of these stories. We know the heroes are going to win, or the anti-heroes are going to persist as their hearts soften, or whatever. For the wildebeest, whatever was going to happen was going to happen. Period. I knew the inspiration of his journey (to throw the ring into the volcano), but I was not familiar with the experience of life in the African savanna. Just providing this new, real world - absent of whiny Americans trying to win immunity - opens up a vast realm of under-utilized narrative.


If it seems like I'm being too hard on television, it's because I am - with the hope that such criticism will make it stronger. Not every show needs to have some coherent philosophy attempting to inject intelligence and philosophy into "entertainment," but certainly more can do it than are right now. And maybe that's why I prefer video games. Even if the plotlines are deficient, I am transforming them into my own experiences and starting from there. The struggle to survive is in my hands - even if no real consequences exist.

But hey, Trek: Spy in the Waterhole is a television production. And it is incredible and awesome and cool and superlative. And for that reason, my faith in all these things and the medium is restored... at least until the beginning of American Idol.

Trek: Spy in the Waterhole airs again this Saturday, September 13, at 1:00 PM Central on DiscoveryHD.

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  1. Blogger chris | 12:55 PM |  

    How has no one commented on this yet?

    Nature programs done well = instrumental music done well.

    I think language has a lot to do with what you're so awesomely prosing about, Doktor. The absence of language in narrative certainly allows the absorber to be more in charge of the interpretation and the journey itself (a la video games). Now I wonder why I still can't get into video games when this is the big reason I love instrumental music so much...maybe it's because psychologically I don't like when things are in my control? The instrumental song eschews language but still retains a previously composed conclusion.

    A couple days ago I said the Blogulator is my life. Now it is also my therapist, thank you Doktor.

  2. Blogger DoktorPeace | 1:25 PM |  

    Thanks a lot, Chris. This session will be $400.

    You're definitely right about language. This was one of the more minimalist productions in terms of human presence, with only the authoritative British voice soothing you through the tale. I believe cameras were hidden in the ground, fake rocks, and even dung to avoid interference.

    A lot of nature programs nowadays are unwatchable because they're trying so hard to make the presenter a celebrity. There was one show about gorillas I recently flipped past that, in the five minutes I watched, showed 2 minutes of gorillas and 3 minutes of a 20-something blond girl looking through her binoculars.

  3. Blogger Brigitte | 4:38 PM |  

    This sounds like a wonderful program. I love nature shows when there's no talking. LOVE. hate nature shows when they try to be "cool" and appeal to the "kids" who cannot stand more than 45seconds between cuts. HATE.

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