The robot apocalypse has stalled. The uncanny valley proved too expansive for even hydraulic legs to hurdle, so now the machines are re-evaluating their strategy and aiming to conquer less-discerning animals, like squirrels. Spy In The Wild is a new miniseries under the PBS umbrella with a simple premise: loose a bunch of poorly taxidermied automatons into nature to see which species are dumb enough to think they’re related. That’s basically it.
The whole thing is recklessly diabolical. The narrator would have you believe that the camera eyes on these robots offer an unprecedented look into the lives of animals, but I can assure you, after watching every episode, that’s complete (wild) horse shit. This is, at best, Battlestar Galactica for ostriches, and the fact that we’re so charmed by throwing Cylons at mother nature says a lot about humanity. If you still aren’t sold on the weirdness of this show, please allow me to take you on an adventure in clumsy evil. I’ve already saddled your convulsing animal husk, can you even believe it’s not a real mule?!
The Spy Creatures Are Half-Assed
Just imagine the 2001 theme played by a fart orchestra.
I’m not a robotics expert, but if I saw any of these animatronics strumming a banjo at a kid’s arcade, I would fully expect to get e.coli from the pizza there. Despite using “cutting edge technology,” the animals are about six tiers below the Hall Of Presidents in terms of realism. Still, Spy In The Wild is careful to point out the subtle differences between a real wild dog and what looks like a child’s hurried depiction of one. Nothing will make you feel closer to a stroke than hearing the narrator say, “This is spy-pup, the only give-away is the camera in his eye” while looking at this broken toy from a mall kiosk:
If you press down on its head, it does a backflip to Christmas music.
But hands-down the most egregious example is probably the crocodile that “moves with the sinuous motion of a real crocodile” and not at all like a kitten trying to escape a sleeping bag.
After five episodes, it’s a tight battle for what’s more deserving of your sadness: that these spasming, unsteady dummies are the best we can do in robotics, or that they actually work, because despite all my complaints, the animals are fooled. All the species they target are completely duped by the Cylons, or at the very least, they don’t think these hunks of metal stuffed in fur coats are dangerous enough to eviscerate. You will find yourself rooting for each animal community to figure out this is not a family member or loved one, you’ll want to see them rip each android head from its shoulders like Ash in Alien, but they never do, at least on camera. Hey, speaking of the cameras!
The Cameras On The Robots Don’t Actually Work
As much as Spy In The Wild is trying to persuade animals into accepting gear puppets into their community, they are working just as hard to persuade you that this endeavor is scientific. The show meekly requests that we all pretend nature documentarists never saw Planet Earth and don’t know how to get outstanding footage of every single species in the world already. They want us to believe that the only way to see meerkats up close is to stitch an iPhone camera into a dead one and then glue it to a stump.
The truth, however, is that only about one percent of the camera angles actually come from those stuffed animals. The bulk of the show’s shots are from normal nature documentary cameras set up all around the robots because, and I can’t stress this enough, humanity has already figured this shit out. Throughout the series you can see how torn Spy In The Wild is between trying to use their garbage T-800 eye cameras (the entire conceit of the show) or lingering on beautiful wide-angle shots of their robot bushbaby scaring the shit out of a chimpanzee.
Fortunately, the decision is mostly made for them because the animal-eye footage is, at its greatest moments, completely unwatchable.
The rare cases where real wild animals are close enough that you can see them, but not so close that you’re staring up the nasal cavity of a warthog, it still feels like you’re looking through a screen door smeared with Vaseline while simultaneously falling out of a tree. All the moisture and dust on the lens coupled with the quick, jerky movements of their stupid cyborgs make every shot completely incomprehensible. You could hold up almost any of the eye-camera footage side-by-side with bodycam footage of a cop wrestling with a shirtless suspect, and it would be impossible to tell which is which.
So the show cheats a lot. They pretend certain shots come from the robots when in fact they’re captured by a real cinematographer. The (wild) elephant in the room, then, is why did they spend all this money on making pretend crows and maggots when they could have just done a normal documentary? Well, because …
The Robots’ Main Function Is To Fuck With Wild Animals
Once the ruse of close-up animal documentation is cleared away, the black and bottomless heart of Spy In The Wild reveals itself: the show wants to know how thoroughly humanity can trick other species into caring deeply about nothing.
If that sounds hyperbolic, watch this scene where the show makes a langur monkey think it’s accidentally killed a baby.
A female juvenile tries to babysit the robot and accidentally drops it two stories. The entire tribe gathers around the lifeless corpse and mourns the loss by holding one another closely in the face of young death. It’s as profoundly sad as it is completely avoidable. This isn’t one of those scenarios where nature has to play itself out as the crocodile pulls a young giraffe’s head slowly underwater; we concocted this shit. They are mourning an inanimate object because we told them it was their loved one. Meanwhile, the film rolls hungrily on from multiple angles with only the imperceptible jostle from the cameraman quietly masturbating over how good this fucking show is going to be.
This isn’t the only baby by the way. Even within the first episode, it’s clear just how much Spy In The Wild prefers their agents of disaster be young. They hide fledgling robots in ostrich nests.
In crocodile eggs.
And push animatronic cubs down into wolf dens, confusing and bewildering the parents who now try to gather enough food to feed an extra mouth.
To the average viewer, this might be as charming as watching a puppy try to negotiate with a Roomba, but that’s only because the differences between wild and domesticated animals aren’t immediately apparent. After a dog wastes a bunch of energy barking and jumping around a vacuum, it’s still going to eat a full meal and sleep as long as it goddamn wants. But out in the wild, the stability of the community and the lives of its members are in jeopardy every single day. Throwing a clunky remote-controlled wolf cub into the mix means the whole pack has to hunt more, which takes them away from the den longer and allows for a situation where, say, a new danger forces the cubs to move five miles away before the adults return, and one of the cubs gets separated from the others out in the barren tundra, where his cries are torn to pieces by the wind, and where only a soulless puppet stares on, shaking its head back and forth in an eternal “no.” Which is exactly what happens.
Sadly, we never get to see the precarious moment where the film crew has to get their robots back. There’s no footage of the team tactfully explaining to wild animals that this was all a goof and their babies were just gears the whole time. So, either they swooped in while the mother was away and stole the hatchling, leaving her to wonder what predator consumed her child and if his death was quick, or worse, Spy In The Wild just abandoned their robots in the field. It seems feasible they left the wolf cub to wind down and the baby hippo to decompose in the river while the adults try desperately to nudge them toward food. It hardly matters to the audience, because the show got a second life on BBC One and a new spinoff series called Spy In The Pod about emotionally fucking up marine animals. It turns out that sometimes, evil is just the right amount of stupid to be charming.
You can watch the entire miniseries here with PBS Passport.
In spite of this show, PBS produces incredible programming and always needs viewer support, especially now with looming budget cuts to the arts endowment. You can donate here.
You can follow Soren on Twitter here. He rarely talks about animals this much.