From time to time, Werner Herzog has experimented with the idea of a true-life science fiction film, using documentary footage from exotic locales (such as Lessons of Darkness' images of Kuwait's blazing, gutted oil fields in the wake of the first Gulf War ), combined with voiceover narration, to suggest the full, eerie strangeness of life in this world. Werner is going to eat his heart out when he crashes in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn and checks out the 30th-(Jesus!)-season premiere of Nature, which was filmed in the Chernobyl area. If they get PBS in Heaven, Andrei Tarkovksy might also feel that he'd missed out on something. Figures in protective green suits with masks over their faces roam through wintry landscapes where the empty buildings, farms, and houses left behind by the former residents of "some 150 village communities" are slowly being absorbed into the natural surroundings. Inside the Contagion costumes are Christoph and Barbara Promberger, German experts on carnivores, who have come to study the wolf population. When the Prombergers come across some well-gnawed moose bones, it is, narrator Harry Smith explains, "a chance to find out if the wolves' food supply is contaminated." A radiation detector is placed next to the bones, and the beeping noise it gives off is loud enough to make Lemmy Kilmister's ears ring.
It's been 25 years since the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster rendered an area of some 1100 square miles unfit for human habitation. The place is officially a closely guarded "exclusion zone" and is usually referred to by Smith as simply "the zone," like the mysterious, uninhabited stretch of wilderness and empty buildings in Tarkovsky's film Stalker. In the absence of people, the zone has become host to a full, diverse animal population, including what rumor has it is "the largest wolf density in the world," though in the course of the program, it is determined that rumor has been a little hysterical on the subject. But wolves are still the zone's leading predator, which makes them a great "indicator" of just how radioactive Chernobyl is and what effect that has on the local ecosystem.
If being top predator in a radioactive environment doesn't sound like the life of Riley, it's still a step up for the wolves from what they'd been used to for most of the 20th century. Wolves were practically declared enemies of the state during the Soviet deforestation program of the 1920s, represented here by a few minutes of old propaganda film that adds to the episode's fascination because, like much of the contemporary footage and also the news film of soldiers and villagers contending with the meltdown in 1986, it looks as if it comes not just from a different place and time but from an alternate universe. Knowing what's seeped into the ground and the plant life of Chernobyl adds a spooky, apocalyptic element to the images of animals and birds seeming to thrive in a land they now have to themselves.
It even makes the plants themselves seem a little creepy, even though the trees and vegetation now looks lush and green, especially compared to the state they were in right after the meltdown, when much of the woods "turned rusty red." And it's tempting to just freak out a little when the camera pans over some eight foot catfish swimming contentedly through the river that carries radioactive contamination through the forest. (Some eagles flying overhead in search of something to eat appear to do double takes before deciding that what they're really hungry for are some nice field mice.) Smith is quick to explain that their size has nothing to do with radioactive mutation; catfish, which live a hell of a long time if nobody fishes them, keep growing their whole lives, and since there are no people around to fish them, the river has these monsters in it. But knowing that doesn't fully dispel the feeling that you could be watching an unusually hushed Roger Corman movie.
"Radioactive Wolves" is itself a Roger Corman kind of title, and while you can't fault PBS for trying to sell its product in these tough economic times, the contrast between its hard-sell gaudiness and the show itself may leave you suspecting that Nature has been on the air for 30 years for the same reason some catfish grow to be eight feet long: it's not bothering anybody, nobody's bothering it, and by the time hardly anybody has even noticed that it's there, it's a pillar of the community, practically a goddamn institution. I don't mean to knock Nature, which, at minimum, generally does a fine job by its subjects. But of all PBS's four-star, non-children's nonfiction shows (Frontline, P.O.V., Nova, etc.), it's probably the one least likely to hit on a topic or state a view that might offend anyone and set off an angry speech on the floor of Congress about the need to defund public broadcasting before it brainwashes America's youth and sends them all down to Wall Street to get same-sex marriages while wearing Big Bird costumes. Which is fine; I like watching cute animals make out in the wild as much as anybody. But the bean counters in the PBS front office may be a little too proud of the show, or at least proud of it for all the wrong reasons.
The final verdict of the scientists interviewed here is that, not only are the rumors about the out-of-control wolf population (rumors that are based partly on the idea that Chernobyl is a death trap for animals, because it could only sustain so many wolves if they were dying out at a rapid clip) overblown, but that the ecosystem, for all the Geiger counters it sets off, is healthy and booming, and that by driving all the people out of the area, the disaster inadvertently created a wildlife refuge. This is a fascinating, ironic point. It would just hit with more force if it weren't delivered in Harry Smith's lulling, Lake Wobegon voice, which sounds as if it were programmed to come up with a sunny, uplifting take on whatever subject you applied it to. I prefer it when F. Murray Abraham narrates the show. He has a way of sounding as if the cute animals owe him money.