The world is always coming to an end on cable news, where panic is the fallback position. And so it does, hypothetically, in the first of four MSNBC specials on our tottering globe, "Future Earth: Journey to the End of the World." Partly a report on an expedition to study the changing Arctic environment and in (small, but endlessly teased) part a CGI disaster mini movie, it is not quite the adventure the material promises. But it works well enough as a primer on the effects of global warming on Arctic ice and why you will miss it when it's gone (not least because it is beautiful to behold).
The hourlong program documents the voyage of the Tara, a seagoing laboratory heaved up onto the Arctic ice pack in September 2006 to drift and study (and study the drift) and crewed by an "international team of top experts" and two dogs, described for some reason as "stowaways." In the normal run of things, they would be attacked by a monster from the deep or aliens from space, but here they just have to deal with polar bears, the changeable ice and ship's cabin fever through the colder-than-cold, six-month polar night. And do that science.
These stresses and endeavors are all briefly suggested rather than deeply explored, but the images, gorgeous and powerful, can stand alone. (With its frosted masts, the icebound Tara suggests doomed voyages of a century past.) Indeed, "Future Earth" is better at times with the sound down: The narration, which does all the storytelling, can be risibly askew. ("The Arctic is a mythical and, in some senses, a mystical place where explorers come to die . . . or . . . be severely disappointed.") It also is oddly coy about making its own case, reporting that "many" scientists say what in fact most scientists say, and using the phrase "growing consensus" to describe a consensus pretty much full grown.
If the news is bad -- that we can only hope to mitigate the damage we've already done -- it does provide an opportunity to drown New York and Shanghai in computer-animated oceans rising faster than a bathtub fills. Here the science melts into speculative fiction and what might be called Apocalypse Porn (see: History Channel's ongoing "Life After People" and the feature film "Knowing").
But fear has its uses.
Coming later in the year are programs on energy, water and the extinction of species.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday