Did we like it?
From the celestial heights of Sir David Attenborough’s compendium of natural history nirvana, through the gritty shiny surface water of Bill Oddie and Kate Humble’s Springwatch etc, we arrive disheartened in the murky, pseudo-intellectual Twilight Zone of Pacific Abyss and Lost Land of the Jaguar, below which there lies the burning circles of Hell and below that only the impenetrable obsidian depths of Mark Frith’s deluded sense of self-importance.
What was good about it?
• The journeys made by the divers featured some glorious scenery. The ghostly wrecks of the Japanese fleet sunk in an atoll bay which was both smothered and constricted by aquatic flora, while shoals of brightly coloured fish swam mindlessly about.
• We did learn the particulars of the bends, but even this educational exposition was accompanied by the trademark lurid morbidity as safety supervisor Richard Ball offered graphic descriptions of the numerous ways that you can horribly die from bubbles in the brain, heart and almost every other major organ.
• John DeGruy’s visit to the island of Puluwat, where he learned how the local tribesmen solder their boats with grapefruit sap (we think) and navigate the desolate surrounding waters using the stars.
• The excitement of the team when they brought what they thought could be new species to the surface for analysis slightly restored our faith in the scientific purpose for the expedition rather than a tiresome saga of how very brave they all were. But even here there was a vacuum as we weren’t told through the narration or a catch-up in the lab if they were new species.
What was bad about it?
• In summation, we learned more about rebreathers than we did about the fauna of this Pacific wilderness, which is utterly wrong.
• At the core of this is a misguided fidelity to the appeal of the human drama rather than the intrigue of discovery. As with Lost Land of the Jaguar, there is a grotesque focus on the exploits of the exploration team with the fruits of their exploration just tagged on and squeezed in like a superfluous DVD extra.
• And this is no surreptitious smuggling of the narrative to the foreground – the fate of the Mike DeGruy, Kate Humble and the rest march from the screen with all the subtlety of a Blitzkrieg, exemplified by a repetitious reminder of how very dangerous every single step of their quest is, setting every scene with a grim acknowledgment of pain and peril akin that moment in Die Hard when Bruce Willis must choose between facing a horde of machine-gun wielding maniacs or a barefoot dash across shattered glass.
• Before the divers have even tasted the salty waters of the Pacific, we’re told in a solemn voice more often reserved for state funerals that the scientists are on “one of the most dangerous diving expeditions ever undertaken”, which will involve “diving to crushing depths” before hammering it home with “a death-defying journey into the Twilight Zone and beyond”.
• Meanwhile, we are told that during the dives, “the slightest malfunction to the computer-controlled air supply could be fatal”, which smacks of the tabloid front page desperation of “Reading books causes cancer”, “Food to run out in five years – dead will appear on school dinners menu”, or “Clouds evolve to target middle class estates and holidays with rain”.
• Inevitably, in the throes of a dive something did go wrong and from the manner in which the narrator’s voice dropped into an urgent tone and the music adopted an ominous timbre as if in harmony to herald an imminent nuclear attack to a doomed populace. After a tortuous melodrama all the divers surfaced, “I’m feeling fine,” reassured John, who was imperilled because of a fault with his rebreather.
• Meanwhile, in the final dive in the open ocean, where “if things go wrong there’s no emergency rescue”, something did go wrong – or at least that’s what we were shown. But such was our scepticism that we’re unsure to believe if that the divers would recklessly wander off into a deep cave, cutting themselves off from radio contact from above, in the knowledge that there was a huge risk of tempestuous weather with the storm breaking apparently just minutes after they venture into the cave.
• But perhaps they’re all just following the drab editorial line – the ‘y’ on the Pacific Abyss logo is a shark that, while not threatening, is evidently designed to evoke memories of man’s impotence in the oceans when confronted by these leviathans of the deep.
• We believe it’s the editorial line that is the problem rather than the protagonists of the piece, as Kate Humble is erudite and charming on Springwatch et al as she wrestles with Bill Oddie to explain what we’re watching. But here, her commentary during her dive to a Japanese vessel sunk in World War Two is reminiscent of those essentially wordless plagues of gushing nonsense as ecstatic Olympic athletes ineloquently convey their delight to a succession of dumb questions that serve not to provide insight but to evoke in the viewer a primal interpretation of animalistic kinship. This might be tolerable in a hectic sporting environment, but in a show with aspirations of scientific discovery it is unforgivable.
• And of course, this focus on the team is at the expense of genuine intrigue. During her dive Kate marvelled in a sporadic moment of lucidity, “It’s amazing how intact the ship is when it’s all over 60 years old”. Yes, but how has it been preserved? We imagine it’s got something to do with the qualities of the chilling brine, but it would have been fascinating to find out, however, instead we are taught how a rebreather works.
• The cumbersome efforts to offer a sense of perspective. One of the team mused on the shipwrecks, “It’s pretty impressive that from death comes life” – but it’s more the non-living ships themselves that offer a haven for fish than’ death’. And Kate’s: “I live in a city that’s been bombed a lot but never seen the impact of a bomb. It’s quite terrifying,” as she surveyed a derelict runway that was attacked 60 years before.
• After an extended preamble, “the voyage of discovery begins” – after half-an-hour of pottering about in the shallows.