Beast Hunter

Beast Hunter debuts tonight on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern.

National Geographic's Beast Hunter gives away a crucial point of information in its title. The focus isn't on the passive descriptor “Beast.” It's on the active noun, “Hunter.” The host of the show, biologist Pat Spain, is the most important part of the show, and how much you like the show depends almost entirely on how much you like him. He's a far cry from the traditional David Attenborough-style dry British narration. He's young, exuberant, highly emotive, very much on-camera, occasionally funny, and occasionally annoying. He's also the narrator, and seems to have been told by the producers to narrate with a gravitas and force that just isn't in his wheelhouse.

Fortunately, the premise of the show is compelling enough that it can carry Spain through some of the weaker parts of the documentary format. There are many various myths and legends of creatures throughout the world, similar to our North American Bigfoot. Beast Hunter has five episodes listed: “Man-Beast of Sumatra,” “Nightmare of the Amazon,” “Swamp Monster of the Congo,” “Sea Serpent of the North,” and “Mongolian Death Worm.” The press kit I received contained the first three of these, which I found somewhat unfortunate, as they were all fairly similar in that they involved a large animal deep in a forbidding jungle, instead of the ocean and steppe creatures of the latter two.

The episode format is fairly straightforward: Spain describes the animal he's hunting. He visits a nearby city and tries to get information from people in the marketplace. He attempts to earn the trust of the locals. He tracks down some eyewitnesses and builds a description of the creature. He looks for experts, or uses his expertise, to try to determine how likely it is to exist. And then he goes out into the wild with local guides, looking for clues by day. Then he pulls out night-vision and thermal imaging cameras for a Ghost Hunters-style night hunt for the creature, followed by a summation of the likelihood of the beast's existence.

One of the biggest formal difficulties of a show based on cryptozoology is that it's based on failure. It would be a huge shock if any of the creatures were actually discovered, especially the dinosaur-like Mokole-mbembe in the Congo. So, barring definitive proof, the producers have to build suspense by any mechanisms that they can. At best, this means showing Spain engaging in rituals to gain villagers' trust, or extended thermal imaging shots at night. At worst, it's Spain's using excessively dramatic narration; disorienting, horror movie-style quick cuts and editing; and a reliance on recreations.

The hour-long, episodic format of the show also requires some sort of relatively quick conclusion. Presumably, Spain also has budget and time constraints put in place by National Geographic, and the show makes it impossible to tell how long he spends in each place looking for each beast before he reaches his verdict and moves on. Was he there for a week? A month? The editing makes it look like a day, as the climactic thermal-camera scenes always take place at night. And, while the day-long portrayal may be effective from a narrative perspective, it doesn't work from a scientific perspective: how can you judge is something rare exists or not within such a short period of time? To be fair, the show doesn't come down definitely one way or another in any of the cases, and Spain even mentions that with time, one of guides he worked with probably could get proof of one of the animals' existence.

All that makes it difficult to justify Beast Hunter's production as a specific hunt for legends. So it relies on personality, which Spain has in spades. His enthusiasm is occasionally infectious, occasionally annoying, but he's even more charming when he's frustrated or pained – even near insanity seems to slide right off him. He's better when he's interacting with other people, like his British photographer guide in “Man-Beast of Sumatra” or dancing with the locals in “Swamp Monster of the Congo.” It makes Beast Hunter a fascinating travelogue, but a flawed documentary.

Stray Observations:

  • Pat Spain really, really, really likes his gadgets. His raves about how cool the thermal imaging camera is, and pulls out his iPad every chance he gets. To be fair, they are really cool gadgets, and seem quite useful.
  • Of the three episodes I saw, “Nightmare of the Amazon” is the weakest. I'm not entirely certain why – it probably had the least animal content – but it involves Spain traveling all over Amazonia and deals with his personality, as opposed to his hunt, more than the others. It's also really reliant on dramatic recreations. It seems to be airing second tonight.
  • SPOILERS: Spain finds no proof for any of the creatures. He thinks that the Man-Ape of Sumatra probably does exist, that the Nightmare of the Amazon may be a ground sloth, and that the Swamp Monster of the Congo is likely a swimming forest elephant.
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