Critic’s Notebook: On National Geographic Channel, No End in Sight for Doom

December 1st, 2012

Nate Evans/National Geographic Channels

It’s beginning to look a lot like apocalypse: the Pyramids disintegrate on “Evacuate Earth.”

Television channels are free to honor the holidays in any way they see fit. It’s in the Constitution somewhere. So on this first weekend of December, NBC will celebrate by exhuming “It’s a Wonderful Life”; Hallmark is to offer a new movie about a Bronx boy and about how all he needs for Christmas is a new heart (“The Christmas Heart”); and TLC will have “Holiday ER,” in which Christmas Eve emergencies are recreated “with full medical accuracy.”

And then there’s the National Geographic Channel.

Other broadcasters may focus their attention on Dec. 25 (or 8, or 26), but as far as National Geographic is concerned, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are for sissies. The date that really matters this year is Dec. 21. Not sure what festive holiday occasion is being observed on that Friday night? It’s the Maya apocalypse, stupid. That’s right: mankind roasting on an open fire.

The channel, whose signature series is now the duck-and-cover show “Doomsday Preppers,” will strengthen its brand by devoting its entire schedule on Sunday and Monday nights to the end of the world. The lineup will include three new programs: “Evacuate Earth” (Sunday night), a two-hour thought experiment in how we might vacate the planet, should a rogue star head our way; and “The Mayan Apocalypse 2012” and “Maya Underworld: The Real Doomsday” (both on Monday night), about the prophesied cataclysmic events that will supposedly arrive less than three weeks from now.

All three shows play a double game, noting either the absurdity or the sheer speculativeness of their subject matter while merrily fearmongering. “The Mayan Apocalypse” even takes time to note piously the negative consequences of giving attention to specious predictions, which is exactly what it’s doing.

Of course, all doomsayers these days can point not just to earthquakes, climate change, wars and financial ruin as evidence, but they can also point to science, which now prophesies the end of life on earth just as confidently as any religious fundamentalist.

That puts “Evacuate Earth” on the firmest ground (so to speak). It posits a possible, if unlikely, event — a collapsed star’s passing through our solar system, tearing apart the planets one by one — and then physicists, astronomers and other scientists outline how we might respond in the decades we would have between first warning and final moments.

It’s essentially science fiction, cheap and cheesy, with lots of stock scenes of explosions, fires and chaotic crowds, but it’s consistently interesting. A 15-mile-long spaceship carrying 250,000 people is proposed, propelled by nuclear bombs exploding behind a huge plate covering the back of the ship. (An antimatter drive is considered and rejected; in one of the show’s satisfyingly pulpy moments, a private spaceship full of billionaires explodes on the launching pad when its antimatter seal leaks.)

The question of who would get on board is also addressed, with the perhaps wishful conclusion that diversity would be a primary consideration. Also, it would help to be a perfect physical specimen with no genetic dispositions toward disease.

The scientists discuss the end of the world as we know it with clear relish. Hakeem Oluseyi, a physics professor at the Florida Institute of Technology with a particularly dramatic delivery, has the most bloodthirsty lines, including, “Once the Earth’s atmosphere, the Earth’s oceans and the Earth’s crust start to become perturbed, it’s going to kill people pretty quickly.”

At times, though, “Evacuate Earth” shows some restraint. A discussion of the search for a hospitable new planet mentions that the presence of life there will be important, without going on to say, “so we can eat it.”

The two Monday night programs have a common approach: both exploit the fear and fascination regarding the so-called Maya prophecy by claiming to investigate why people are so scared and fascinated by something extrapolated from thousand-year-old stone carvings.

“The Mayan Apocalypse 2012” features the Scottish writer Paul Murton, a genial tour guide who drops in on some American survivalists before heading to the Guatemalan jungle, where the scenery and the shots of the majestic Maya ruins make the time pass pleasantly. He interviews archaeologists and language experts who smilingly indulge him, enjoying their time on camera, but uniformly deny the existence of an apocalyptic prophecy.

But Mr. Murton is unflappable, always finding a way to keep the conversation going: “The text doesn’t rule anything out, though,” he says. “If the Maya had a creation myth, maybe they had a corresponding destruction myth.”

“Maya Underworld: The Real Doomsday” covers much of the same ground as “The Mayan Apocalypse,” but in the form of an adventure travel show rather than an educational special. The filmmaker Diego Buñuel is our buff guide, rappelling into the deep pools called cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.

He’s more enthusiastic than Mr. Murton about the prospect of doomsday: speaking of a favorite subject, Maya human sacrifice, he says, “Everyone here is part of a National Geographic expedition to see if these sacrifices can shed new light on our own pending apocalypse.”

The show is closer to reality TV than to documentary, with the multitasking Mr. Buñuel bushwhacking around Mexico and Guatemala in search of material that is then loosely stitched together into a portrait of the Maya.

The best scenes, and they’re worth waiting for, are shot at the bottom of a cenote where human sacrifices are thought to have been thrown: the divers, using a light developed for deep-sea exploration, discover a grisly yet stately ossuary under 100 feet of water.

For his last act, Mr. Buñuel visits an archaeologist on an expedition in Guatemala who has a possible answer to the whole Maya apocalypse question. We won’t reveal it here, though it was widely reported last spring. Let’s just say that you should go ahead and make your Christmas or Kwanzaa plans.

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