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‘PBS Nature’ Goes Back In Time to the Age of the Vikings
February 12, 2019  | By Alex Strachan

In some ways, Ewan McGregor makes an ideal narrator for the PBS Nature program Wild Way of the Vikings. His Scottish accent passes as vaguely exotic, if not Viking exactly, and his voice isn’t as overbearing as some narrators’ might have been. The voice must always serve the material, and the Star Wars and Trainspotting actor is a perfect fit for Wild Way of the Vikings.

The program itself has a canny concept. Nature, now in its 37th season, first aired in 1982, with a three-part program called Condor: Ice, Wind and Fire. The world of the Vikings, some 1,200 years ago now, revolved around ice, wind, and fire. In a curious, possibly unintended way, Nature has come full circle.

Wild Way of the Vikings plays like a breath of fresh air, too. We’re surrounded by constant reminders — daily, on the news, and in countless other nature programs — that the world is going to pieces. There are too many people and too few wild places, and while some of us talk a good game about going green and the need for environmental conservation, none of us is really willing to give up central heating during the polar vortex, or air con during that summer heatwave. Wild Way of the Vikings is a throwback to a time when there were arguably too few people, not too many, and Arctic animals like walruses, reindeer, and snowy owls were frequent and easily found.

Wild Way of the Vikings has many of the signature marks of the genre — live re-enactments (I’m not fond of these, personally, because they often look so obvious and faked), and that generic, faux-symphonic music that as often as not sounds as if it’s been cobbled together from pre-recorded music cues selected by an A.I. computer program.

Wild Way of the Vikings promises to give “Viewers Like You” a look at the natural world through ancient eyes, and while the visuals are not up to the level of one of those wondrous David Attenborough epics, they’re quite compelling — overhead, aerial images of large herds of caribou and reindeer running through fields of snow and ice, orcas hunting seals in semi-frozen fjords and, in a familiar opening image that never fails to amaze, boiling volcanic lava flowing into the sea.

Anyone familiar with pop culture already knows about the Vikings, from the History channel’s period drama Vikings, now improbably in its sixth season, and counting, to the Norse mythological figures in Starz’s American Gods, adapted from the novel by Neil Gaiman. The Vikings were renowned as warriors, explorers, navigators, and poets, and pop culture has been infatuated with them ever since Wagner composed his four-part epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen in the mid-19th century.

As McGregor notes in Wild Way of the Vikings’ opening moments, though, there was another side to the Vikings, one historians are only now starting to recognize: their profound relationship with the natural world. It’s hard to survive in a rugged climate with long, dark winters unless one is attuned to nature’s natural rhythms, and the Vikings could never have survived, let alone thrived, if they hadn’t found a way to use nature without exploiting it.

If you can get past the tacky dramatic re-enactments — there’s a reason Ken Burns has sworn off re-enactments in his award-winning, generation-defining history epics — there’s a lot of interest to see in Wild Way of the Vikings. It won’t give you an urge to go reindeer hunting, but you’ll feel better for having seen it. It’s a welcome break from the cacophony and noise of the modern world, and it’s really quite informative — not in a lecture-hall way but in the subtle, offhand way of telling stories around the campfire.

You might not have guessed, for example, when McGregor tells you that another warm-blooded animal conquered the sub-Arctic tundra long before the arrival of the Vikings, what that animal was. (Spoiler alert: It’s not the polar bear, but rather the Arctic fox.)

Wild Way of the Vikings is a play on Game of Thrones, but with nature, and voiceover.

Nature: Wild Way of the Vikings premieres Wednesday on PBS at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings)

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