Better Dumb TV, through Science!

OK, if a gnarly croc fought a Great White, who'd win? Animal Face-off seeks answers our greatest minds (past age ten) have ignored.

By Steve Burgess 14 Jun 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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You know Discovery Channel--worthwhile, educational programming and the chance to watch animals have sex. But Discovery has gone far beyond that now. Thanks to the new Animal Face-Off, Discovery is out there on the cutting edge. Creating better dumb TV--through science!

Animal Face-Off is dumb all right. It is sublimely dumb, the kind of dumb that requires effort, expertise, and inspiration. The program employs scientists and engineers to create realistic simulations of animal-to-animal fights of the sort rarely seen in nature, e.g. saltwater crocodile vs. Great White shark. At last, someone has put a finger on the main drawback with the animal kingdom--it's just not enough like the NFL.

Or more to the point, not enough like the sort of water-cooler discussion favoured by ten-year-old boys. For kids, this kind of who-beats-who debate ("The Punisher would kick Batman's caped butt!") are the conversational equivalent of the weather. It's basic social lubricant. Discovery has merely transposed those hypothetical superhero showdowns to the natural world, and backed them with a bewildering level of scientific and technical expertise.

Don't underestimate the Death Roll


On each episode, jaws and claws of the competing beasts are reproduced with life-size animatronic models, cast from metal molds and calibrated to replicate the actual force of the creatures in question (the models are also equipped with red or yellow high-beams for eyes. You are no doubt familiar with this scientific technique if you have seen any of the Terminator films). Those models are then tested and mapped by computers to create realistic programs of each combatant. After that--well, shoot, it's just a video game. Will the croc's death-roll beat the Great White's threshing action? Yee-hah!

What's astounding about Animal Face-Off is the amount of expertise on display. They really ought to have stuck two guys into crocodile and shark suits and had them fight it out, but no. Replicating the shark's head required a hydraulic system that captured the unusual movement of its jaws, which move independently of the skull. Done. As for the mechanical crocodile, its jaw was required to duplicate the most powerful bite in the world--over 2000 pounds per square inch. "Is this a girl or a boy croc?" an engineer asks. "Definitely a male!" the scientist enthuses. Know your demographic, lads.

Discovery Channel is typical of the modern polarized cable environment--male and female channels, watched in separate rooms. Its name may still carry the whiff of edifying content but thanks to guy fare like Frontiers of Construction and Monster Garage, today's Discovery is about as highbrow as TSN.

Why we need the space program


Not that these shows lack for PhD's. In fact, watching Animal Face-Off it becomes clear that people are wrong to criticize the space program. Going to Mars is too darned expensive, they say, and we should save our money. But it's a false economy. As the Discovery Channel has now proved, idle scientists who would otherwise be plotting trajectories to the Red Planet are now building fake fish while trash-talking the wimps on the crocodile team. Those who wonder why cold fusion has not saved the world with clean, renewable energy should wonder no more--them pointy-head folk are busy making metal kitty-cats.

One episode pitted a lion against a tiger, but metaphorically speaking, Animal Face-Off seems more inclined to match the Detroit Lions against the Detroit Tigers--crunching tackles versus home-run power. Improbable scraps like shark-against-crocodile and gorilla-tackling-leopard capture the spirit of comic book-swapping kids, attempting to compare the universe inhabited by Spider-Man with that of The Green Lantern. And sure enough, Discovery's online bulletin board discussions of the show quickly offered up a Superman vs. Hulk debate, with one poster suggesting Chewbacca vs. Big Foot. The potential for educational spin-offs here ought to be tremendous.

There is talk that Animal Face-Off will eventually feature a tournament format, with winners proceeding through the playoffs. Will some future episode pit an elephant against a giant squid? Oh, please please please. This is what science is all about.

Steve Burgess is traveling in France to detox after watching a bit too much television on behalf of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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