You-know-poo: Ranking the characters of ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge’ from least to most interesting – the final verdict


Kinda like our landslides here the past few weeks, there was a lot of moving and shaking. But as freezing temperatures set in (we desperately hope), things aren’t far from what was expected.

All ten episodes of “Svalbard: Life on the Edge” (“Ice Town: Life on the Edge” outside Norway) have now aired and it’s not all that hard ranking who starred and who sunk, although it must be noted much of the best footage got left on the cutting-room floor. As other coverage at the fishwrapper’s website notes, the series is essentially an entertaining diversion and an ultimate waste of opportunity at the same time. That reflects on the characters as well; only one truly gets a continuous and intriguing storyline, but at least the show picked what appeared to be the person with the best narrative. But they could have done much more with the others. I’ll get into specifics when discussing each character.

But these rankings, reflecting the cold realities of math, can’t allow that to be an influence. So, based solely on what made the final cut, is how the persons featured in the BBC Earth docu-soap series rank in from least to most interesting. For this finale I am including anyone deemed worthy of a “hero shot” (where their name is displayed as part of a slo-mo profile image), although “supporting” characters appearing only in an episode or two are noted with an asterisk.

11. Alex Pilditch (SvalSat employee and tour guide)
The runaway winner for “most screwed over character” of the series. I need to talk to him to get some actual facts, but I’m wondering if the show picked him as an ideal character and then found themselves unable to film much of what he does at Svalbard Satellite Services (I was casually chatting with a carpenter the other day who mentioned he did some kind of renovation/repair there, but when I asked what it was he said he was prohibited from discussing it). There were too many snowmobile trips with tourist groups for his to stand out, but his trip to Isfjord Radio with his girlfriend was a sweet Hallmark Moment. Ultimately, his main flaw was being too sturdy and normal for reality TV – a trait the co-winner of these rankings shares, except that person has a counterpart that results in a classic ying-and-yang entertainment value.

Original prediction: Second-to-last, behind yours truly. But much as I want to, I can’t rank myself last and expect this list to have any credibility based on feedback from locals and visitors throughout the series.

10. Ben Finney and Lara Hudson (Green Dog Svalbard mushers)*
It’s amazing they weren’t featured more given all the time film crews spent with them. But there is also the question of what do you show besides them taking tourists on trips and caring for the dogs? Still, Lara in particular came off well in the scenes she was in – her describing how she copes with an isolated life, trying to keep tourists happy during an outing cancelled by a blizzard and helping Ben take the outhouse gunk to town dump being the best examples. Given all the potshots I’ve taken at the series, it’s nice when I can legitimately say even the near-last finishers had their moments.

Original prediction: Higher than this, but not much.

9. Mark Sabbatini (“super sleuth journalist”)
There’s no question I peaked during the all-important “avalanche episode” during week three and the following episode when I’m struggling with my possible sudden departure from here due to the sudden loss of my home. But beyond that, it’s all a bunch of piffle. The one scene I liked was me talking to Benjamin Vidmar after a fire wiped out his greenhouse. It was a legit interview/conversation, but he was the star/focus, not I. There were several other scenes like that with characters and other local residents I wish had made the final cut instead of what was shown (i.e. me in a spur-of-the-moment interview with Mary-Ann when a tour bus driver destroyed the entry gate of her lodge…it makes the scene with her fired chef seem like polite conversation). On the positive side, thankfully, they dropped the “L.A. crime reporter” idiocy after the first few episodes, but there’s nothing during the second half of the series that’s “must-see TV” involving me.

Original prediction: Dead last. But the truth is, due to what I suspect to quirkiness and public visibility, the most “famous” characters from the series are Wiggo, Claudia, Mary-Ann, Christine, Benjamin V. and myself.

8. Mats Macombe (Spitsbergen Travel guide)*
So the editors in London are looking at all the cool footage shot here, see Mats’ stuff and…exactly what f**ked-up decision making process followed that limited him to one appearance in Episode Four? Originally touted as a main character in a press release, he had to settle for being the comic highlight of his episode (yes, even above Mary-Ann’s infamous “Arctic Kitchen Nightmares” scene). From spinning out in Svalbard’s only Porsche to forgetting the food on an snowmobile expedition with friends, he pulled off the impressive feat of combining lovable goofiness with quiet dignity.
Original prediction: Not applicable.

7. Martin Eckhardt (doctor at Longyearbyen Hospital)*
He doesn’t appear until Episode Eight, but he is by far the most interesting character of that episode and at the start of Episode Nine. Not only is he getting away from the stereotypical scenes we’d been seeing repeatedly for weeks (he deals with frostbite, caring for patients, an emergency rescue drill at sea and a seriously ill infant), but he does so with a quiet yet strong on-camera presence. It’s easy to argue he should have been one of the regulars, but the hospital likely would have balked on that many months of filming.

Original prediction: Not applicable.

6. Chris Borstad (UNIS professor and avalanche expert)
I thought picking those at the top of the list would be torture, but it took maybe a minute to sketch out the list beginning with Chris. The series didn’t seem interested in showing him as more than the de facto avalanche expert, although at least the looser side of him was revealed in his final two appearances (one where he forgot a key piece of field equipment, the other when he did the ski marathon in Episode Nine). A strong, smart and likable character that makes a nice contrast to the show’s goofiness and exaggerations – but, alas, the nest person on the list did those things somewhat better.

Original prediction: About here, maybe a notch higher.

5. Leif Magne Helgesen (priest at Svalbard Church)
If I were to channel our local priest’s thoughts, they’d no doubt urge me to not harbor resentment and refrain from questioning the motives of the film editors. But to hell with that. Why in the name of *?!$€~ #=€?}\^ ?%}^>\ did you show him conducting four outdoor Masses and only a few brief moments elsewhere? Look, I get you weren’t there when he was trying to save Palestinian villages from destruction in the West Bank (but there is news and other footage) and you decided not to interrupt your holidays for more than a couple of days during the several weeks after the avalanche, when he was arguably the primary healer/spokesman-in-chief. Still, there’s nothing involving his everyday church work, and only a quick token nod to things such as a landmark recording project and his presence as a live stage singer. Leif easily was one of the top two personas in terms of presence – his being dignity, the eccentricity – and perhaps it’s predicable the editors didn’t perceive that as a marketable commodity. Bastards.

Original prediction: Top three or four, ahead of the next guy on the list.

4. Benjamin Vidmar (founder of Polar Permaculture)
If these rankings were about the character with the most interesting storyline Ben would win in a rout. He is the only person in the series who has a consistent and evolving plot as he tries to get his greenhouse and Polar Permaculture project started. And the twists in the plot range from some of the most humorous (worm cookies) to tragic (the toxic fire) of the series. Plus, there’s personal moments such as the gorgeous moonlight scenes of him meditating in an abandoned mining structure. The finale brings it all home for him – and essentially serves as a larger blanket statement for the hopeful side of Longyearbyen’s uncertain future. Without meaning any disrespect, he’s likely to become one of the biggest role models for greenies who are aware of this place. Only complaint: why were there no scenes of him doing DJ duties during those Saturday night parties at Huset, the closest thing to a red-light district we have?
Original prediction: Here or a spot lower.

3. Mary-Ann Dahle (owner of Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg)
This is where we cross the line into “weirdness sells.” Mary-Ann goes on about penises in the first episode and the last episode, and she’s equally eccentric about everything featured in-between. She gets the one “tabloid TV” scene in that infamous fight with her short-lived chef. And she’s easily one of the two most “colorful” characters, if you translate colorful to mean bizarre. Witness the episode where she schemes to get The Boss here for a concert (it’s not a spoiler to say it never happened). But there’s too much repetition about her 100-hour weeks and other history that could be devoted to further escapades. I mentioned one above regarding a spat about property damage. And, other than her getting ready for bed in the finale, I don’t remember seeing her relax or have fun away from the lodge once. Granted, a one-dimensional Mary-Ann is more interesting than most people are in three dimensions, but how about at least trying for two?

Original prediction: Same ranking, more likely than not.

2. Wiggo and Claudia Antonsen (taxi driver and ‘Colombian worm killer,’ respectively)
One more episode like we’ve seen during the last two episodes and they’d have the first-place finish I predicted at the beginning. But the series totally blew it during the middle episodes – I’d have replaced 80 percent of it with different footage – so they have to settle for the silver. Wiggo, of course, is the poster boy for the series, which mostly shows him making jokes about death to tourists and trying to make money off them with various tours. Claudia has her moments with Ben’s worm cookies and Christmas, and with Wiggo during their faux fishing and bird tours. But there should have been a lot more of the latter types of adventures.

Original prediction: gold medal. Note to show editors: “You had one job to do.”

1. Christine and Grace Ireland (hotel worker and chef, respectively)
They’re absent from the final two episodes (except for the final “everyone gets a last word” scene), but watching the first eight it seems like the rest of us are just supporting actors to their lead role. Claudia dominates the duo much like Wiggo dominates his scenes, but Grace – like Claudia – is the perfect counterpart persona. She’s wild, movingly emotional (easily the most so and it never feels forced), comically suggestive in her language; he’s the prototypical strong, silent and sensitive type. The remarkable thing is none of their scenes are all that “extreme.” There’s none of the community drama of the avalanche, the personal setbacks of Benjamin V. and myself facing the loss of our livelihoods here due to sudden events, or the high-comedy hijinks of Lara’s miserable tour group outing and Wiggo’s “for the birds” tour. Instead, this young couple wins the top spot simply by showing a with-it duo with a not-entirely-unique dream that’s the closest thing to “reality” captured on camera during the series.

Original prediction: Silver medal. I figured there was no way the BBC’s posterboy wouldn’t win. I figured wrong.