Those who take part in TV survival shows willingly step into the experience without knowing components of the challenges they’ll face. But in Discovery’s newest survival series, the participants will be kept in the dark — literally. In each episode of Darkness, three survival experts test their mettle in zero-light experiences that replicate actual training situations used by NASA and the U.S. military’s special forces. Each survivalist starts out the challenge alone and must find his or her teammates, find food, and escape from their pitch-black environments — ranging from an old silver mine to a complex of lava tunnels to an abandoned nuclear fallout shelter — in less than six days.
And when the producers of the series say the participants will be in the dark, they don’t mean low-light. They mean no light. “There’s a very big difference between being in the dark and being in zero light,” clarifies executive producer Joseph Boyle. “Zero light means there’s absolutely no visual information whatsoever.”
Boyle also explains that the short duration of the experience — relative to other survival series, where participants can spend weeks or months on a journey — comes from research that suggests that six days is the threshold that most people can handle in the dark without having a breakdown of their faculties. “It’s the amount of time that they can operate before it starts really affecting their ability to undertake challenges and actually accomplish their goals,” he says, and notes that the effects of the sightless, subterranean experience will affect some of the participants much more quickly than that. He promises that viewers will watch some on Darkness rise to the challenge, while others will cave to the terror of the unseen.
Some of the series’ diverse locations include a mix of man-made and natural environments, each with its own set of challenges and characteristics. “A man-made environment might have some logic to it, the way it’s created. A cave system is nature, so it has zero logic,” explains Boyle. “Every sort of zero-light environment that you could possibly find has a different personality. They’re essentially characters themselves.”
And as a producer of the series, Boyle has been witness to the intense shoots and knows firsthand what these survivalists are up against. He calls the zero-light experience “claustrophobic. The darkness creeps in at the sides of you at all times.” He also says that darkness becomes oppressive and palpable, and “you can feel it in your bones.”
Boyle shares that capturing action for television when there’s nothing to “see” presented its own challenges. Since a black, blank screen doesn’t make for exciting TV, the show’s producers unleashed their inner MacGyver to enhance pre-existing infrared, thermal and night vision technology, and create new post-production tools so there’s something for viewers to watch. The result is TV unlike any you’ve ever seen.
And despite the 2-night event’s high-tech toys and tricks, the drama ultimately comes down to interesting and inspiring people matching wits against unforgiving locations, and persevering despite insurmountable odds. And because of the nature of Darkness, where the challenge seems far more mental than physical, it may turn out that the summer’s most riveting show to watch has absolutely nothing to see.
Darkness > Discovery Channel > Wednesday, Aug. 2 & Thursday, 3 at 10pm