Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Very Strange Days - A Review

I watched the PBS special "Strange Days on Planet Earth - Invaders" last Wednesday. Hosted by actor Edward Norton, this was a very, well, strange look at the issues surrounding introduced species. A few highlights:

  • The scientist segments were very interesting. It is always good to hear James Carlton speak. But he is just as good without cheesy "danger" music playing behind him. This show would have been better if it spent more time with the scientists and less time with the "raising unanswered questions and showing pretty pictures for people with short attention spans" segments.
  • I think they confused the invasives issue by showing cool shots of things that were not invasive. A montage of termites...leaf cutter ants...army ants...wait? Leaf cutter ants? A little voice over would have gone a long way here.
  • This is not your parents' PBS. Sure, the neat time-lapse photography is still there. There was also an excellent underwater sequence of the weevils emerging as adults and attacking water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). But there were also computer-enhanced scenes to demonstrate things like seed rain and the path of a munching termite. Those looked fake to me, but there was no narration to indicate it wasn't real. Dancing rats celebrating the death of a cane-toad-eating cat were especially cheesy. I think there was a simulated landslide too. I can only hope the scene of the Nile crocodile attack was also faked.
  • I watched this show in HD, and one thing I now know is that if I am ever so lucky as to be asked to be on tv, I am absolutely going to insist on getting a makeover first. Realistic Shmealistic.
  • Speaking of makeovers, Dow scientist Claudia Riegel is lucky enough to do all of her digging for termites and checking of bait traps in a crisp new shirt and without gloves. Maybe this is a testament to the safety of Dow's insecticides.
  • The invasive South American plant Miconia (Miconia calvescens) is being spread around Hawaii in part by an introduced bird, the Japanese white eye (Zosterops japonicus), which was introduced to control insects. Very interesting. I do not envy David Duffy though, hiding out in a tent during an island downpour.
  • The show should have ended with James Carlton, noting how our ability to predict invasion is still poor. But instead it ended with another weird monologue from Ed Norton, and scene showing a businessman in some anonymous financial district, pulling a red wagon holding a bowl with a Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens) in it. Definitely not the aquarium fish that comes to mind when you think of invasive species.
My conclusion: Watch this show when it re-airs (not sure when, but this is PBS, it must be coming up). But you may well benefit from pressing the mute button whenever there is not a scientist on the screen. Also, definitely check out the accompanying website, lots of good in-depth stuff there that the tv show did not cover.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful review. I think you hit on every concern I had for the program, although I was only able to sit through half of it. I was expecting to see some actual information on invasives, not just some artistic interpretation of the problem. In fact, it was 12 minutes before they even mentioned the name of a single species (I timed it). The time up until that point was spent, like you said, "showing pretty pictures for people with short attention spans." The segment on the Formosan subterranean termite really bugged me (no pun intended), because they only mentioned the full name of FST once, and the rest of the time they just talked about the problems that "termites" caused while showing footage of houses collapsing, never bothering to distinguish between native and nonnative species. Boy, if there was ever anything to make people think that invasive species aren't a legitimate problem, it was this program.

Anonymous said...

I concur completely! I felt like I was watching MTV. And as an ecologist, I laughed when I saw Claudia's "field clothes."