NBC, we learned today, is paying Survivor creator Mark Burnett $35 million for the rights to Destination Mir, a reality-based TV series in which Americans will compete for the right to spend time on the Russian space station Mir.
Let me get this straight: The winner gets sent to the space station Mir? What does the loser get—a year in a Russian submarine? Or maybe an Indy 500 slot in a Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone tires? As you may recall, the last big flurry of news from Mir, in 1997, was about a series of American astronauts almost dying there. First there was a harrowing, 15-minute on-board fire, then a collision with a Russian support craft that punctured a Mir module and rendered it uninhabitable. And so on. Basically, Mir is to modern spaceflight what the Monitor and the Merrimack are to modern naval warfare. (Well, almost.) Even Russian astronauts don't spend time on Mir anymore.
The distinct possibility of the winner's televised corpse orbiting Earth indefinitely is not the only problem this show faces. Apparently, the drama is supposed to come from the contestants undergoing rigorous astronaut training in Russia, vying to be deemed the most Mir-worthy—an extended physical fitness test, basically. So the show will wholly lack the vital soap-operatic dimension of Survivor—the conniving, the bonding, the broken bonds, etc.
Oh, well, I guess it beats Big Brother. And I'm sure it won't be the worst thing to emerge from the frenzy of Survivor envy that has swept the networks.
Meanwhile, I predict trouble ahead for Survivor itself. The next round, which debuts in January, will suffocate in strategic self-consciousness. This time everyone will know from the get-go what only Richard realized the first time around: You've got to get yourself into a coalition pronto. The first day contestants spend in the Australian Outback will be like fraternity rush on amphetamines. Then, with the competing alliances set, the next month or so will be like the Cold War: a boring contest of attrition, with the winning coalition predetermined by its superior heft.
The only hope for a consistently interesting show lies in uncertain allegiances: secret agents, double agents, and people whose fragile sense of self leads to endless dithering. (Is Kelly available?)
Of course, there will be renewed drama toward the end, when the victorious coalition implodes. Still, there'll never be another Survivor like the original, which began amid innocence and then gradually, rivetingly, sank into debasement. I'll be watching this Friday when Survivor: Back to the Island takes us back into the muck of human treachery.
By the way: Survivor lent vital support to one side of a longstanding argument about human nature. I'll discuss this in a column next week. (Note to regular readers: No, the vindicated view of human nature is not evolutionary psychology—at least, not writ large. I'm referring to an argument within evolutionary psychology.)
Finally, a point of clarification: I am not the Robert Wright who is president of NBC. However, should something go badly awry with Destination Mir, I'm available.
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Find out more about NBC's "Survivor in space" show here.