2/13/2013

Bad Television: Whale Wars Season 4


Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson likes to say that the Japanese whalers he regularly harasses are scared of him and getting desperate, disregarding how his own actions often come across as perfectly reflecting those assertions. The first season of the television show Whale Wars set the tone for future episodes. Outgunned and outnumbered by the Japanese whaling fleet, Paul convinces two of his volunteer crew to illegally board one of their vessels with the intent to generate an international incident. He's dismissive of the danger involved and brands those who disagree with his plan "cowards". He gleefully confesses to the camera afterwards that everything worked according to plan, as the involuntary holding of his crew created a "hostage incident". Towards the end of the climactic clash with the fleet in the season finale, he suddenly extracts a bullet from a hole in his bulletproof vest, professing to not have noticed to being shot in the chest at the time. Huh? While never substantiated by an independent investigation, this improbable sounding claim has raised considerable doubts. One brilliant thing about Whale Wars is how it (probably unintentionally) offers a glimpse of Paul's overweening ego, his pathological need for attention, his self-satisfied manipulation and bullying of others, and his barely concealed contempt for his critics, rivals, and enemies. When combined with a small measure of eloquence and the uncompromising stance of a true believer, they produce a charismatic figure whose attitudes naturally seep down to his idealistic but often tone-deaf followers. It's proof that autocrats can be found anywhere, no matter how righteous the cause. While these qualities may, or may not help in his crusade to end whaling forever, they admittedly make Paul an oddly fascinating, if altogether insufferable anti-hero.

The Japanese whalers, off course, are meant to be the villains of the story. But because the show's embedded style of reportage fails to present them with a human face, they're inevitably transformed into a cataclysmic force Sea Shepherd feels compelled to face every year. Every season of the show ends with the organization claiming success for having reduced the number of slaughtered whales. Yet at the start of the next season, the whalers return with tougher countermeasures, forcing Sea Shepherd to adopt even more reckless tactics in order to outfox their foe. The fourth season of the series is notable for how this brinksmanship finally appears to have yielded them not just another dubious moral victory to crow about, but genuinely positive results in the form of Japan suddenly suspending all whaling during the middle of the campaign.

Due to this premature cessation, this season admittedly lacks the same level of hostile activity that made last season so exciting. No ship-to-ship collisions, sinkings, or unwelcome boardings occur this time. You can always count on the Sea Shepherd crew to supply some drama, whether it be inter crew bickering, dealing with unreliable equipment, or demonstrating sheer incompetence. But most of this season's suspense comes from the typical frustrations of finding the whaling fleet while dealing with the dangers of working in Antarctica. The worst incident comes from an almost tragic attempt by one of their ships, the Bob Barker, to shake off a tailing Japanese vessel. Two small boats are launched to carry out a complicated maneuver to distract and disable the spy ship while the Barker makes a break for it. This results in the boats being unintentionally damaged and separated from the Barker for a good twelve hours. In the meantime, the onboard camera operator records the slow deterioration of the boat crews as they futilely try to keep hypothermia at bay while stranded in the middle of the Southern Ocean. This object lesson about the harshness of the environment is underlined a bit later, when Sea Shepherd is drafted into an unsuccessful search and rescue mission.

But the tensest confrontation actually occurs between Paul and helicopter pilot Chris Aultman. After working nineteen hours straight, nine of which were spent in aerial reconnaissance, Chris finally spots the Japanese whaling flagship the Nisshin Maru from the sky. However, sheer exhaustion forces him to return to Paul's flagship, the Steve Irwin. Paul wants him back up ASAP, but Chris firmly insists that he won't be able to safely continue until he gets at least four hours of sleep. So while he rests, the Irwin looses track of the Maru in an ice field. A visibly annoyed Paul begins to loudly voice his frustrations with Chris' inactivity. By the time a refreshed-looking Chris returns to duty, the mood on the bridge has grown noticeably sour.

The whingeing ends up being unwarranted when the other ships eventually catch up to the Maru, and after a merry chase Japan's government announces its withdrawal from Antarctic waters. The Sea Shepherds are naturally euphoric over this news, and what follows are a series of individual tributes praising Paul's leadership, dedication, and courage to "reject an ordinary life". Paul himself returns the compliments when he gives a speech to the Irwin crew. Calling whaling an antiquated activity, accompanied by a litany of less kinder labels, he hopes that it will be "tossed into the dustbin of history". He congratulates everyone for their hard work, and in classic Steve Jobs fashion, calls them a "bunch of bloody pirates". Season four's finale is a kind of victory lap with Paul, Chris, and a few chosen crew members being interviewed about their latest success. So I guess that's it then? We've got our happy ending. No more whaling in the Southern Ocean, amirite?

With the benefit of hindsight, this triumphant closure turns out to be illusory. While I've yet to see it, a fifth season aired last year, with yet another season on the way. Paul has been arrested and is now wanted for skipping bail. After eight years of campaigning in the Antarctic, Sea Shepherd has achieved a lot of notoriety for themselves through the TV series. But with no peaceful resolution to the conflict in sight and both sides continually raising the bar for aggression, I gotta wonder how long the near misses will last before someone is severely injured. Paul also likes to say that anyone who wants to be a part of his crew has to be willing to put their life on the line for the whales. Someone might get that chance to make that sacrifice while the cameras are rolling.