Last Chance to See: In the footsteps of Douglas Adams

Last Chance to See

a review by Nalini Haynes

Last Chance to See is an ecological documentary starring Stephen Fry.  In the late 1980s, Douglas Adams travelled the globe with Mark Carwardine in search of endangered species. Mark is a zoologist and photographer, so Douglas Adams’ role was to give a different point of view as someone who had never been involved in conservation previously.

As the author of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams had reknown of a different kind. Adams became quite passionate about conservation as a result of trekking around the world with Carwardine. While Adams and Carwardine were travelling the globe, Stephen Fry lived in Adams’ house, fielding requests for Adams’ books and so on, experiencing jealousy on an interstellar scale. The night before Adams died, Carwardine and Adams discussed following up on their previous series by doing a sequel. After Adams’ death, Stephen Fry took Adams’ place in this adventure. Adams’ ghost overshadows this journey, with many references to the original series and Adams himself. It appears that he was a mutual friend of both Carwardine and Fry but that they didn’t know each other well before setting out together.

Fry is a completely unconventional choice for this role, hating camping (except the gay kind). In the first episode, Fry fell off a boat, seriously fracturing his arm. After a 7 hour operation, he had a pin with screws in his arm to enable him to function. Months later they resumed filming the series.

When I was growing up, I had to contend with twin brothers who were rabid nature program fans. I remember having to miss Blakes’ 7 because they were watching a nature program on the other channel – I think it was Harry Butler, but I don’t know what Harry Butler was doing on commercial TV. Other regular features in my home were Lorne Green and David Attenborough, among others. These programs are the yardstick against which I am comparing Last Chance to See.

I found Last Chance to be a very unusual nature or conservation program because it focused on people to an unusual extent. Fry and Carwardine have scenes reminiscient of reality TV shows, where they express their feelings and concerns. Early on there seems to be some level of conflict between the two, presumably due to personality clashes – Carwardine comments that Fry will be unable to stay sufficiently quiet to enable them to observe manatees. In another episode there is conflict over whether they will seek out the Northern White Rhino at great personal risk. Unlike other reality shows the concerns or differing points of view are not exploited, but instead negotiations and decision making is clearly done off camera to resolve conflict. However, I thought the honesty in revealing the conflict added interest and some amusement.

Last Chance also focuses on the people and the larger consequences of actions. For example, while other conservation programs may talk about poachers, Last Chance shows dried seahorses and shark fins for sale in a shop, explaining why there is such a market. Ironically the market for bio fuel in the form of palm oil and the need for bio-degradable packaging has resulted in poor farmers clearing native habitats to grow ‘ecologically sensitive’ products. Thus the Law of Unintended Consequences applies to the green movement, and causes more global warming and devastation.

Fry presents a kind of ‘Hitchiker’s Guide’ interlude periodically, either as voice overs to real footage or as voice overs to images of a globe, which even has ‘doors’ open in it so that mechanical images of whatever species he is discussing can emerge. Fry is best known as a comedian, but his primary function in this show is as a layperson, asking questions and being a foil for the competent Carwardine and guest professionals. This is both amusing and educational. For example, Carwardine explains the manner in which a komodo dragon hunts large prey, by biting a victim and then waiting a week or so for the victim to die. Fry exclaims how this is the lowest hunting method, lower than a dung beetle, then he adds that it is even lower than an estate agent or banker.

The difficulty with many conservation programs is that they seem to be so depressing, while the viewer is powerless to change anything. Last Chance is different in that it shows the efforts of people to save endangered species. In one episode a woman who had guided Fry and Carwardine to the planned Northern White Rhino conservation effort fights back tears after she is shocked by the abrupt cancellation of the program. In another episode, conservationists ‘steal’ a sea turtle’s eggs to incubate them in a farm, then free the newly hatched turtles. Many years ago I was devastated by a program that showed the laying and hatching of sea turtle eggs, which documented poachers and predators taking most of the eggs or newly hatched young. In this program one newly hatched young out of a nest with 81 (‘stolen’) eggs was captured by a crab, but Carwardine freed the turtle so it escaped to sea. Every hatchling made it out to sea.

In another episode Fry and Carwardine undergo a horrendous hike in hot and humid conditions to spend an hour with gorillas. Apparently people can pay less than $400 (possibly pounds or Euros) for this privelege, and many do so. The money raised totals about $2 million a year, which goes to conservation in many areas of Africa.

Last Chance to See is a nature come conservation program with an equal focus on human involvement. There is adversity, triumph and failure along the way. If you are interested in conservation, climate change, Stephen Fry or getting ideas for how you could contribute to conservation (boycott palm oil, help with re-education, changing attitudes etc), this is a must watch.

This article was previously published in Dark Matter issue 2, January 2011, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.