Liveblog: ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge,’ Episode Six from Polar Permaculture


10 p.m.: No long preamble. Ben, founder of Polar Permaculture, is not here yet, but I’m guessing we’ll have a lot to say about our appearances this week. As always, I’ll fix typos and add details after the show’s over.

10:03 p.m.: Woo-hoo! Ben walks in just as show starts. He was one of the nain characters last week and this episode will definitely feature a follow-up of a tragic situation he was in. I’m guessing my stuff will consist mostly of interviewing him.

10:04 p.m.: Title: “On Thin Ice.” Not quite sure if there’s a theme to this one, given the previews, although I’m guessing there might be some kind of breakthrough involving a snowmobile as the main drama.

10:05 p.m.: Christine and Grace packing for snowmobile trip to Svea, the furthest they’ve gone from town alone here. The narrator calls it a “disused mining town.” Um, WTF? Svea did indeed shut down – two days ago after a full-scale mining season. But there’s still going to be people there maintaining the facilities in the hope the mine can reopen in a few years. “These straps, I think it’s a test of the marriage I think,” Christine says as Grace ties things down. That and the cameras – having them along for an initimate celebration of Grace’s birthday proved the theory of observing an action changing it.

10:06 p.m.: Christine as they pack: “The beer, the whisky is most important.”

10:07 p.m.: Nice sunny spring day, but “you’ve got to keep in the back of your mind something could go wrong.” Christine also talks more about their plans to move outside of town, off the power and water grids.

10:08 p.m.: Ben shown looking at basement greenhouse after a fire ruins everything by covering it with toxic ash. He’s able to give a short laugh now at the narrator’s “up in smoke” line.

10:09 p.m.: And I show up to cover up the story.

10:10 p.m.: Me: “How many plants are you going to be tossing out.” Ben: “500 or maybe a thousand.” And many more exchanges about the incident. Alternating shots of him working and explaining, and me writing and taking photos. Afterwards, we both agreed this came off really well and totally true-to-life (not always the case with interacting characters, when even viewers might sense things are a bit forced). Hat tip to the show on this occasion.

10:11 p.m.: Ben points out now that one of the people helping him clean says “meth” on camera when I ask what’s next. Dammit…I missed that when doing the interview – yes, I’d totally have published it, less for scandal than just showing some of the fatalistic humor taking place.

10:12 p.m.: I depart. For me, it’s a story (bottom of the front page, it turns out, since the town’s only vet and a tour company were also severely affected). For Ben it may be the end of his project, depending on things go with his insurance company. This is a remarkable similar storyline to me in Episodes Three and Four, but he’s handling it a lot better than I did.

10:13 p.m.: To Wiggo at the airport waiting to pick up passengers for his taxi bus. He notes tourism is now the main industry here. Narrator talks about how it wasn’t a big industry until a couple of decades ago.

10:14 p.m.: Wiggo talks about dangers with “his innocent new arrivals.” Example: “Today it’s no longer the miners dying here, it’s the tourists.” It’s what we see every time he’s featured, but luckily Wiggo native dialect is largely gristly one-liners. I’ve talked to him numerous times since the show started filming and, while incredibly smart and insightful, talks in sentence you need to record because uses phrases no normal person has in their mental vocabulary (which as a journalist means the shorthand normally I use is worthless).

10:15 p.m.: Wiggo talks about how you can’t bury things in permafrost here because they come back to surface “and then you’re food for the foxes,” hence no more burials in the cemetery. When this is over I’m going to do a tally of how many of his sentences refer to death. Preliminary over/under is 25 percent (he did spend a lot of Episode Two talking about the Northern Lights and bitching about Christmas).

10:16 p.m.: Christine and Grace at -28C and stopped because something connecting sled to snowmobile snapped off (the dramatic scene I saw in the preview when the rear of the scooter seemed to suffer a near-serious mishap). They search for the parts along the trail.

10:17 p.m.: They’re off again and, 20 kilometers from their destination, come by a cabin that looks like it’s been vandalized. They approach cautiously. Christine: “No bears.” Grace: “Just a big mess.” They talk about the need to seal off the windows and doors of cabins properly.

10:19 p.m.: They find huge bear footprints in the snow – and then what it appears to be a den. They are having far more fun doing this than I would – I’d have fled at top speed as soon as I saw the footprints. They set off again with an hour or so of daylight left. Narrator says they need to reach their cabin by nightfall, which is a bit of false drama. The correct word is “want.”

10:21 p.m.: Me off to the “one of the most mysterious buildings here.” But NOT, as the narrator says, to report about it. The film crew asked me to go out there and tell them about it. I guarentee we will not be watching me suggest a few times in my car they engage in carnal relations with their feminine parents (they stuck a GoPro in there to film me driving out to the vault) due to what I felt were attempts to stage scenes.

10:22 p.m.: Lots of basics and some inside shots of the vault (not with me, since we didn’t go into the vault during filming). I mention a story just wrote about one seed species – basically an underwater Venus Fly Trap– that can’t survive in the vault for some weird reason (meaning this was post-game commentary on the story).

10:25 p.m.: Me talking about the crazy stories involving the Doomsday Vault. Thirty seconds of comments can’t possibly convey how insane stuff gets. I’ll post some links here sometime Tuesday.

10:26 p.m.: Ben’s laughing about the “creepy” music with the seed vault scene. Totally agree. One of the most commonly ridiculed aspect of the series is how the soundtrack goes way overboard trying to set moods.

10:26 p.m.: Christine and Grace reach their cabin 70 kilometers from town just as last light vanishing. God (not in vain), all of the scenery shots of this trip are steller. If the soundtrack is one of the most absurd parts of the series, the cinemotography might one of the best. They check the area for bears. Temperature is -25C. Narrator: “It’s amazing what some people call a birthday treat.” Grace shaves wood into the stove (and, wow, “that’s a knife” – a seriously long and practical old hunter’s blade). They get a fire going and open the first of what will probably be many beers.

10:29 p.m.: Christine talks about worrying about polar bear invaders while trying to sleep. Candles are lit at a table as they share more beer, food and a cake Christine baked for Grace. Very sweet moments.

10:30 p.m.: Where’s my present?” Grace asked. “It’s in the bedroom – we’ll wait until…” Christine trails off looking at the camera. WOW…first geninue fourth wall moment of the series…at a well-timed one. That got the big laugh here so far, obviously. Although, I gotta ask Christine when I see her just where the hell the crew stayed that night. I really hope it wasn’t the living room, since it’s not like there’s much to silence even the slightest of noises unless an all-out storm is occurring.

10:32 p.m.: Back to Ben, showing him climbing up into a large abandoned mining facility on a hillside to mediate. Ben talks here about the difficulty of doing so in the snow and cold. Shows him meditating with an overview of the town (“That’s a cool shot there,” Ben says watching it…agreed). One thing the show asked all the characters to do was a scene showing them doing what they do here to get away from it all, so to speak. This was Ben’s and it taught me something new about him (good), albeit to mediocre New Age music from the East (not good). Mine, BTW, was lame and may never be seen: writing mostly non-fishwrapper stuff at insane hours at Svalbard Church, the one place I know is open 24/7, has a kettle and internet, and is almost always empty. I’ve been doing a lot of that since the avalanche last December since I’m often unable to sleep at 3 or 4 a.m., and it was better footage than me typing on an iPad in my bathroom (which I’m doing at this moment to update/correct the liveblog before I go to bed).

10:35 p.m.: Ben: “The fire won’t stop us. It will just make us stronger.” Says new vegetables are on the way and soon they’ll be selling them. He prepares to leave. “Mission accomplished.” Damn. Unlike me who came off as whiny victim in crisis, he comes off as a resolute soldier. No wonder viewers keep bringing him up as one of their two or three favorite characters.

10:36 p.m.: Wiggo at shooting range with 1936 rifle. Says it’s the first time in two years he’s visited the range. Verdict: “The German quality still works.” He laughs in a way you don’t necessarily want to hear from a guy with a gun. BTW, his marksmanship is something less than perfect. So far that’s been the case for every character in a target practice scene.

10:37 p.m.: Christine and Grace are up the next morning. She’s cooking breakfast (bacon bittys…mmmm) and he spots a seal on the ice. They talk more about this being why they want to move off the grid. Grace says the myth that Longyearbyen is remote is just that, due to things like an airport, internet, etc.

10:39 p.m.: They plan their day (looking at seals first). Grace seals off cabin. Christine sets off the use the bathroom in the -17C cold. Seal appears en route. She talks about the unpleasant thought of a polar bear approaching at such times.

10:41 p.m.: They set off for a glacier involving crossing the frozen sea ice. Narrator offers ominous warning that all that’s protecting them “is a thin layer of ice.” They check to the conditions, which appears to be safe.

10:42 p.m.: Scene of them crossing to heart-thumping music. Christie says important to cross over as fast as possible. They make it without incident. So much for the big setup.

10:43 p.m.: They take in the glacier. Share some hot water. She throws some in the air and it freezes before it hits the ground. Everyone watching the show here is wowed at Mother Nature’s capabilities.

10:44 p.m.: Ben and a helper starting anew in basement greenhouse. Ben, while watching, notes they called the helper the wrong name…guy in the room watching with us got screwed over.

10:45 p.m.: They go outside and set up markers where an outdoor greenhouse still in transit will be built. Nice scenery and soothing uplifting music.

10:46 p.m.: Last night at cabin for Grace and Christine. They sit outside under a clear sky with some candles lit (drinking more beer, of course). Christine talks about how a trip like this makes her excited for the future.

10:48 p.m.: Moonlight allows them to see the surrounding mountains. They are definitely a very cute couple as they snuggle up with that scenery in the backdrop.

10:50 p.m.: Next time: More Christine and Grace, Alex, Mary-Ann, Leif and more. And, it would seem, no central theme. Which brings up a consensus among those watching tonight’s episode I agree with: the show is actually getting boring because it’s lacking a narrative. Instead, most episodes feature scattershot stuff about individual characters with maybe a few things that suggest a continuing storyline. And right now I consider that a far larger failing than my initial worries about how “real” Svalbard was portrayed in the series. There was an opportunity to document maybe the most dramatic year in Longyearbyen’s history since World War II. Instead, they opted for stuff intended for audiences with an attention span of one or two episodes and no sense of nuianced modern developments. I’ve had a chance to watch a few BBC Earth series in the past few months and nothing using that approach has registered with me and I have no idea why they consider it a commercially viable formula. Still, I had some tourists from mainland Norway wanting selfies with me yesterday who love the series, so make of that what you will.