Ranking the characters of ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge’ from least to most interesting (sorta halftime edition)


Six down. Four to go. And it’s far from clear the current rankings will look anything like the final ones.

I’ve been at a loss as to how to rank the “stars” of the ten-episode BBC Earth docu-soap “Svalbard: Life on the Edge” (“Ice Town: Life on the Edge” outside Norway), mostly because I can’t figure out why the show is allocating scenes/storylines to everyone the way it is so far. But things have progressed far enough to say the initial rankings after the first “introductory” episodes were somewhat askew.

Wiggo Antonsen, literally the front-and-center poster boy of the series, got one captivating episode with his wife Claudia in Episode Two (who has vanished since) and a few relatively brief scenes ever since, all of which basically involve the same theme (driving tourists around and making jokes about dead people). The last-place finisher is getting totally screwed over with two unremarkable appearances that ignore most of what he does here. And, in the interests of full disclose, I’m the only person who’d be in every episode if not for for a minor glitch in timing. Since I’m the one character sitting on his ass at Fruene or some cozy place 90 percent of the time instead of actually living the life here, something’s obviously totally screwed up.

Nonetheless, the series is showing Svalbard as it wants to and these rankings must be a reflection of that, regardless of how they’d rank in real life. So here are my ratings of the show’s main characters (supporting characters, notably Spitsbergen Travel guide Mats Macombe, the comedic hit of Episode Four, are omitted) at slightly past the halfway point.

9. Alex Pilditch (SvalSat employee and tour guide)
This massively isn’t on Alex. It seems like the series can’t figure out what to do with a calm, intellectual guy who’s main work is highly technical, so they’re shoving him off into a few stereotypical “adventure tourism” plots. Idiots. The guy works for SvalSat – one of the most advanced climate/weather stations on Earth, and a frequently suspected espionage/war crimes target of hostile foreigners – but so far he’s gotten some ehh footage of his side job as a snowmobile guide in two episodes (one and five). For f***’s sake, every  episode so far has featured snowmobile tours and mishaps along the way. The only way the show’s mistreatment of him gets any slack is if he tells me his SvalSat work is so secretive it couldn’t be filmed – which, knowing what I do about the station, seems unlikely (not to mention there is a brief shot of him there in the first episode). Still, gotta love his comment in E5 about anyone believing Svalbard is eco-friendly is nuts and anyone criticizing that fact who doesn’t live here should get bent. Don’t totally agree, but it’s a well-reasoned and ballsy argument that says much for him.
Prognosis for series: Sad. Nothing so far suggests a personal storyline indicating the series will pay more attention to him.

8. Ben Finney and Lara Hudson (Green Dog Svalbard mushers)
Apparently I need to combine these two because it appears there’s a continuity problem – one of them departed partway into the filming, so the focus shifted to the other. Lara, interestingly, comes across as the more interesting character even though she didn’t actually do any mushing during the episode she was in. Instead she had to try to keep the morale of the group up in a serious as a snowmobile scout spent a bunch of time trying to determine if conditions were safe (they weren’t). And both were featured in one of the more attention-grabbing scenes of the greenie episode (number five) when they had to deal with emptying the outhouse and taking the bags of sewage to town for disposal.
Prognosis for series: Not as good as it could be. While Lara gets a decent amount of time to talk about living far outside town with limited comforts, it appears most of the focus will be on tourist trips – but thankfully less so than the obsession with snowmobile tours involving some other characters.

7. Mark Sabbatini (“super sleuth journalist”)
Given I’m a contender for the most airtime so far (I haven’t done an exact tally), this might seem an absurd and phony bit of humblebragging. But this reflects what’s happening during that airtime – when I’m not sitting on my ass surfing the web somewhere I seem to be an insufferable self-obsessive asshole bitching about his lack of money even though a huge portion of the population has suffered much worse – and in many cases forced to leave. But getting me out of last place for now is due to folks saying they feel I explained what happened during the avalanche well in episode three and they liked the scenes of me moving into a new flat after nearly being forced off the island in episode. Mercifully for all of us, those are my most significant scenes and I’ll be a minor presence from here on.
Prognosis for series: Episodes Five and Six are probably good examples: I mostly appear briefly, covering an event related to the main theme of the show (and gave haters the perfect line to attack me as just another MSM libtard in the future: “Climate change, like evolution, is a fact.” Not as good as Alex’s line, but guessing somebody will throw it in my face someday). Here’s guessing you’ll see a lot of that during the rest of the episodes, but my role as someone with a significant role is done.

6. Chris Borstad (UNIS professor and avalanche expert)
Easily the smartest and most level-headed of the on-screen characters which, of course, seriously crimps his reality TV value. Thank goodness he forgot a key piece of equipment in Episode Five since offered a glimpse of the cheerful guy locals know in real life rather than more of the somber lecturing professor we see on TV. Still, if I was going to get my degree via a virtual university, Chris is the kind of prof I’d want since he discusses everything from avalanches to climate change impacts in easily understood, yet substantial, terms. And despite some viewers saying they find him a bit distant, his narration about the harrowing rescue of friend and his family during the avalanche in Episode Three was the most graphic depiction of just how tragic the snowslide was.
Prognosis for series: Likely to remain here because it’s to see any kind of evolving storyline from here. He might have gotten far more time if the crews hadn’t vanished during the six weeks surrounding the avalanche (maybe the worst call of all by the execs), when he was highly active in things such as starting avalanche awareness presentations and groups.

5. Wiggo and Claudia Antonsen (taxi driver and ‘Colombian worm killer,’
Oh…the agony. What happened to that awesome couple we saw in episode two, but not since? I have no idea why the series can feature a snowmobile tour every week and somehow find time for the antics of this couple. Some of it may be due to Claudia working at Svalbardbutikken, which didn’t allow filming to take place there (why is puzzling, since plenty of other media has shot stuff at the town’s only supermarket). And maybe it’s because the couple doesn’t have any drastic storylines like a few other other characters. But that’s no excuse. If I could could get Wiggo to write a column for me every week (hmmm…since I haven’t asked massively it seems like I should) I’d be in raptures because his on-screen persona isn’t an act. He is legitimately one of the best storytellers on the planet (and one of the most morbidly insane…we were talking about the mining crisis this week and his solution was to have prisoners work the mines without guards, letting them die off if they failed to be productive). Of all the people in the series, he’s the one most likely to he approached with a book or some other offer.
Prognosis for series: I thought for sure they’d finish first after Episode Two but, like too many things about the series, a huge amount of potential is being wasted.

4. Leif Magne Helgesen (priest at Svalbard Church)
Very, very tough call. He has an incredibly noble presence on camera and appears in some of the most picturesque scenes during his outdoor Masses (we’ve seen three so far and another will apparently air next week). Which is kinda the reason he’s here, at least for now. He does too many other things to be confined in that role.
Prognosis for series: The Masses featuring him talking about many things related to Svalbard – the show needs to start showing him doing them.

3. Mary-Ann Dahle (owner of Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg)
After Wiggo, she’s got the highest peronsa in the word of reality TV. She’s been in four of the first six episodes and never failed to make a huge impression on viewers because she’s, well, different. Her extended talk about wildlife penises in Episode Two and epic Ramsayesque fight with a new chef in Episode Four is the stuff of reality TV execs’ dreams. But is this ever going to be about more than an ongoing sequence of antics?

Prognosis for series: Even money on finishing in the top three. She’s always fascinating. But can the series get beyond that and show the the deeper side of the woman who’s devoted nearly 20 years to one of the most unique tourist offerings here?

2. Benjamin Vidmar (founder of Polar Permaculture)
While I’m often critical of the series, the choice of characters is generally excellent and Ben is perhaps a first-among-equals example of that. There’s certainly nobody else with his unique vision for this unique place and his efforts to make locally sourced food a reality. And yet, it’s the openness of Svalbard that allows such individuals to come here and pursue such dreams. He’s only been in three episodes so far, but is generally one of the characters most mentioned when I talked to viewers. The Episode Five storyline sets things up for some huge drama in Episode Six and beyond, and I’ve gotten a sense since the beginning of filming the crew loves what he’s doing here. I’ll admit a potential bias since we share some similarities – unique projects threatened by unforeseen tragedies – but as an observer of his project from the start he’s done far more with it than I thought possible. I’m guessing the show will spend a lot of time showing a lot of his struggles building a greenhouse during the last episodes of the series.

Prognosis for series: Coin-flip on whether he finishes in the top three. Considering the competition, that says a lot about this against-the-flow unlikely one-man band.

1. Christine and Grace Ireland (hotel worker and chef, respectively)
Does anyone have doubts at point? You could, based on preview footage of Episode Seven, exclude them from the last three episodes and they’d still take the gold. Most of that might seem due to Chrstine’s unquestioning mastery of on-camera presence and quotes, it’s the rock-solid presence of her man that lends credibility to their scenes. As I’ve written before, plenty of couples not in a honeymoon-like state will ask “why isn’t our relationship like theirs” without any answers. Suggested starting point: have you gone on a week-long camping trip with them? If not, it may be hard to understand how both of them don’t resent a lack of the creature comforts most of us cling to (a decent stock of beer not withstanding). Oh, BTW, did we mention Christine dominates the narrative in Epiosde Four and they both do in Epiosde Six?

Prognosis for series: Seriously, you’re asking?