Thursday, 14 April 2011

And you should know that everyone runs from Shere Khan.

Television shows are strange creatures. Living and dying by how popular they are they tread a fine line between trying to be innovative, and trying not to alienate an audience by being too unfamiliar. Stray too far in to the former territory and you'll be branded as "weird", too far in to latter and it'll be "boring". As such television shows are always trying to find unique selling points, something that distinguishes them from the herd without turning off viewers in droves. Probably the most basic and yet amazingly effective example of this is "Jeopardy!" which is for all intents and purposes a run of the mill quiz show. Except that, unlike standard Q&A routines employed by similar programmes, contestants on "Jeopardy!" must provide an answer in the form of a question. It's only a simple deviation and yet it has made "Jeopardy!" phenomenally successful, the show having picked up a record 29 Daytime Emmy Awards since 1984.

Which brings us to The Beast Hunter on National Geographic, and it's host Pat Spain. (Gee Note: Or The Beast Man as it's known in the UK, due to copy-write reasons. Which I'm guessing is news to this guy:)

The show itself is a simple enough concept. Woovy bezerk animal is supposedly kicking around somewhere. Pat is dispatched with a camera crew and tasked with launching an investigation in to the wee beastie. And yet it turns out that Spain himself is an incredibly rare find, one that would make a television producer weep with delight. Looking a-bit-but-not-really-like Justin Timberlake he's articulate, youthful, and enthusiastic with genuine scientific chops to back up his camera friendly attributes. He's also the great nephew of a certain Charles Fort. Yes that Charles Fort. Godfather of all things wacky and wonderful. The man who put unexplained phenomena on the map. Seriously, the only way Pat Spain could be any better as far as the TV execs are concerned is if he was also made from cocaine and rainbows.

Before the show aired in the States, Pat was interviewed by a host of publications and crypto-friendly websites. One of which,, asked how the show differed from others such as the now defunct "MonsterQuest". 

Spain responded with: I feel like a lot of these shows rely on the "we just don't know" factor, quick camera turns and "what was that?" Blair Witch style stuff. It's a quest for an animal without doing the upfront work. I'm not saying it specifically about Monster Quest but a lot of these shows really bother me, like when it’s a diurnal animal and they go out with night vision cameras, looking for it at night, And they don't call it by the correct regional name. What's different about our show is that we're doing an initial reconnaissance mission. We’re saying "Should science look closer at this creature? Is their real evidence that this is there?". On the investigations we were doing, if we stumbled across something it would be great but we didn't go out with collecting kits. This is more about learning the plausibility of this creature.

Which sounds A-OK as far as I'm concerned. Indeed one of my major criticisms of the last ever MonsterQuest episode was that, despite the fascinating story of the Gable Film hoax and Steve Cook getting verbally bitch slapped by Linda Godfrey, the majority of the show was devoted to three lunatics wondering around the woods trying to find a werewolf by looking at poo and random indentations on the ground. In fact if I never see another night vision sequence featuring someone loudly whispering that they can hear something moving just off camera again I'll be a happy chappy.

Sadly the first episode of The Beast Hunter doesn't quite live up to that ideal.

It's not that it's a bad show you understand. But after all is said done it's no more scientific than jumping up and down while flapping your arms to see if you can fly (Gee Note: C'mon. We've all done it. Hell I give it a bash every fortnight just in case I'm like a super cool mutant with magic flying powers or something. So far, no, it hasn't worked. But it will one day. People think I'm crazy, but I'll show them. And when I'm flying around and racing pigeons I'll be all like "Who's crazy now huh?" And then I'll laugh "Hahahahahahahahahaaaa!". And then a Swedish supermodel will want to do the sex with me. You just wait. I'll prove you all wrong). Despite it's best intentions The Beast Hunter is more about entertainment than about a legit search for cryptids.

For example the first episode is all about the search for Orang Pendek, a ground dwelling bipedal primate around 4 ft tall said to inhabit the forests of Sumatra  (Gee Note: If it helps picture Orang Pendek as I do, a drunken homeless midget). The Orang Pendek is one of those cryptids that a lot of people think might actually exist, despite the fact that there's little or no evidence to support it. This is probably due to the fact that unlike Bigfoot or Nessie, Penny is not a Wookie nor is it a bloody great big lizard fish. Instead it's a wee monkey that just happens to walk upright, and inhabits the notoriously unfriendly Sumatran Woods.

It kicks off with Spain strolling through a local market and asking natives about the creature with a simple "Orang Pendek?". Alas part of the problem with using the "correct regional name" is that Orang Pendek literally translates as "short man", which leads to much confusion as to why this pasty foreigner is trawling the stalls looking for someone with a small penis.

Dick jokes aside, the market is a bust as far as first hand information goes. And so Spain meets up with Debbie Martyr, a woman who claims to have seen the creature with her very own eyes. She provides a detailed description of the animal and even points out the closest match to its fur colour on a chart Pat carries around with him (Gee Note: NERD!!!). However Spain, citing the lack of hard evidence and the unenthusiastic response from the folks at the market, isn't entirely convinced that the creature exists. So to find out once and for all Spain chops down all the trees in the area forcing the bastard out in the open goes and talks to the local Shaman. "If anyone would know if Orang Pendek really is out there" he says, "it's him".

Hold up. What?

OK. Let's see if I can get this straight. In this seriously scientific venture for seriously scientific people the decision was made to search for an unknown animal based entirely on the word of a Witch Doctor (Gee Note: Hey Witch Doctor give us the magic words! Alright. You go ooo ee oo ah ah. Ting tang walla-walla bing bang. Allllright! Man I love that record. Largely because playing it at an obscenely loud volume and jumping around like an idiot annoys The Future Ex-Mrs. Davies quite a bit. It's the little things in life that please me). I mean, you know, I'm not sure that groundwork would stand up to rigorous examination when presented to room full of boffins. Not that I don't think the world wouldn't be a better place if the scientific community wasn't a little loser in that regards. Testing schmesting I say. People should just come up with a theory, gather a room full of clowns, give them numbers and get them to fight to death. If the last clown standing is a 5 or higher, the theory stands and will be taught in schools forever more. Any lower and it's back to drawing board for you Mr. Science-Guy.

Eventually, after watching the Shaman do a dance with some sticks, Spain quizzes the enlightened one on the existence of the Orang Pendek. "Dude. The Orang Pendek is, like, totally real man. I've absolutely connected to it with my mind powers, even though I've never seen one" says the Shaman (Gee Note: Or words to that affect. I lost my notes with the Shaman bit on it if I'm honest. Luckily my photographic memory never lets me down. Otherwise I'd probably end up looking rather foolish). Oblivious to the blatant contradiction of stating "I feel like a lot of these shows… [are] a quest for an animal without doing the upfront work." and asking the Shaman "Have you been able to spiritually connect with an Orang Pendek?" as some sort of proof of existence, Spain gives a hearty clap of his hands and heads off to the woods in search of a big surprise.

Taking with him a handful of slaves helpers and a British wildlife photographer as a guide, Pat heads in to the dense forest hoping to track down the elusive ape. Noting that his guide - a chap by the name of Jeremy Holden - had once photographed a rabbit in this region that was previously believed to be extinct, Spain hypothesizes that it is indeed possible that a small creature could live amongst the trees and go undetected for centuries. And it's not hard to see why, as most of the remaining footage involves Spain forcing his way through dense foliage, falling over, getting back up, swearing, and falling over again. It's a bit like watching a Buster Keaton movie, if of course Buster Keaton had a pierced ear and dropped the F-bomb like a sailor.

As such hard facts are difficult to find. At one point Holden finds a tree branch covered in moss except for a small patch in the middle, and claims that Orang Pendek probably used it as leverage to navigate the trees. Spain, releasing his inner six year old schoolgirl, grabs the branch himself and almost squeals with delight. "The missing moss could be where Orang Pendek placed it's hand!" he says excitedly. Which, sure, I guess that could be the case. But then the moss could also have been licked clean by a stranded, starving donkey. (Gee Note: Ah the lesser spotted Moss Eating Donkey. A curious creature indeed.) Compelling evidence it was not.

Deciding to knock things up a notch, and once again contradicting his previous statement, Spain and his crew choose to spend the night outdoors, complete with the now obligatory night vision footage. Setting up a series of camera-traps and moseying through the wild, we're treated to "Blair Witch style stuff" as Pat wanders in to a clearing, freezes, turns to the camera and whispers loudly "I can hear… there's something moving behind those trees!". Even spookier, a bunch of gibbons start hooting and hollering in the distance as Holden explains "Gibbons aren't nocturnal. That means that something must have alarmed them. They wouldn't be like that at this time of night normally". Cue a series of quick camera shots as Spain worries about the possibility of being attacked by a tiger.

Fortunately Pat manages to avoid being munched by Shere Khan and his pals and lives to search another day. Unfortunately the camera traps pick up no images of unknown animals and the hunt for Orang Pendek ends with nothing tangible found. Still, as Spain himself puts it in a passionate summing up "We don't have the time or the resources to search for this creature" (Gee Note: Which begs the question "Why have I just spent an hour watching you do just that if there was never any chance of you finding the sodding thing? Man, I haven't felt this ripped off since I bought that ticket to watch Michael Jackson at the 02 arena in 2009. There I was standing in the middle of London by myself. No Michael. No supporting acts. In fact I was the only person in the entire building. Waste of goddam money if you ask me."), "but if someone like Jeremy was given the right financial backing, there's no doubt in my mind he would find the Orang Pendek".

So ends the first episode of The Beast Hunter and despite it's problems, it actually makes for some terrific viewing. This is in no small part due to Mr. Spain himself, which is surprising to say the least. You see when the show first started and Pat came in to view I immediately hated him. "Bah," I said to myself "This guy has obviously only been chosen to front this show because he's a scientist who doesn't look like a mangled troll. In fact I would go so far as to say he's quite handsome. If you like that sort of thing that is. I mean, sure, I'm way better looking than he is. But I could see how he might get the odd girl here and there. Anyway I bet he's rubbish.".

But the truth is Pat Spain is charming, knowledgeable, and a legit knowledge geek, and within ten minutes he'd won me over. Much like Prof. Brian Cox, he's one of those people that makes you wish you spent less time in school staring out of the window. He makes fumbling around a remote and dangerous jungle for an animal that probably doesn't exist seem fun and exciting, without ever degrading in to the macho bullshit that dogs programmes such as Destination Truth. And as it stands The Beast Hunter is a thoroughly fine piece of entertainment.

Just don't call it “science”.

1 comment:

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