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Reality Check: Alone

Alex Ellis reviews The History Channel’s ‘Alone’.

Alone, a new show on the History Channel, describes itself as ‘the boldest survival experiment ever attempted’.

This isn’t hyperbole. Ten contestants (only men, regressively) brave the Vancouver Island wilderness to literally out-survive each other to half a million dollars. They’re placed 7-8 kilometres away from each other along a river, and forced to survive with the ten items they chose to fit in their backpack and a tonne of camera gear.

They’re all ‘survival experts’, and have been trained to use the camera equipment they’re supplied with; the show is completely self documented. This is why it’s so believable. The producers aren’t involved at all, other than via the ‘tag-out’phone each contestant is provided with. Jeff Probst isn’t waiting around the corner with a medic. You can only get outside help if you pull yourself from the game.

The show usurps similar survival shows with its honesty and realism. In Survivor the survival element of the show is virtually a gimmick. In Man vs. Wild, Bear Grylls focuses on entertainment, not longevity. Alone is desperate and contestants are in it for the long haul. What they do, especially considering the burden of filming it all themselves, must be effective.

This is one of the most satisfying things about the show; you get to see ten unique approaches to survival. The core needs (food, water, shelter) don’t vary, but the

approaches contestants use to attain these things are often drastically different. Some bring fish nets, some bring the know-how and indifference to survive on seaweed every day. Some contestants have grand plans for cabins with fireplaces and boats for exploration, for others “the best thing to do is stay hydrated and lay still”. Everyone has their own plan and tricks up their sleeves.

Despite all strategic considerations, the defining factor in success seems to be the mental game. The landscape they’re living in is densely occupied with bears, coyotes and wolves; it’s truly hostile. Some contestants can handle this and some can’t. In one scene, a contestant is stalked by a bear outside his shelter during the middle of the night. He taps out immediately, and says his goodbyes to the camera, fearing for his life. He looks gut-wrenchingly scared.

It becomes apparent that you can bring all the gear and read all the survival textbooks you want, but there are some things you can’t prepare for. The longer contestants survive, the more they realise that the mental challenges are as threatening as the physical ones. Almost every single contestant at some point concedes “this a battle against myself”. Alone is gripping because of its realism, and because we get to compare so many unique and contrasting takes on how people deal with these truly intense physical and mental tests.