Planet Earth II: The theatre of the natural world


Penguin in snow.

This week’s episode featured the chinstrap penguins of Zavodoski Island in the South Atlantic.

Think death-defying chases, lovers divided by the wide oceans, epic duels, and a young male’s search for a partner. What springs to mind is likely to read as the roll-call of this year’s cinema, but it is actually what happened in last week’s episode of Planet Earth II. Instead of actors, the cast consisted of marine iguanas, Southern Buller’s albatrosses, Komodo dragons, and pygmy three-toed sloths. In the new series which attracted an unprecedented 9.2 million viewers (Jasper Jackson, The Guardian), the programme built upon its formidable reputation of ten years ago. The first series made it clear it was not your average natural history documentary, and the new series goes further to show how the format has been paradigmatic for the genre and for perspectives on conservation.

David Attenborough narrates and presents the series, his commentary providing an insightful and wisely contemplative counterpart to the often inexplicable behaviour of the wildlife involved. The accompanying music stirs up the sense of drama and assists in shaping our sense of the scenes we see as comic, tragic, romantic, or otherwise. It is as if nature has been choreographed, but really the programme only works to capture the authentic lives of the living creatures involved; the drama we see is an inherent part of nature itself, a prerequisite of it. 

The format is strikingly familiar, but has only been improved by advances in technology over the intervening years. As Jackson noted in The Guardian ‘[t]he team behind Planet Earth II have taken advantage of a decade’s worth of advances in technology to produce more detailed and impressive footage than its groundbreaking predecessor.’ What is first apparent is the brilliance of the cinematographic technique, demonstrated in the dramatic sweeps of the camera over bright paradisiacal islands and show-cased in time-lapse shots of magma cooling into silvery lava. Over 2,000 days were spent in filming (Jackson, The Guardian), building a picture of the painstaking detail inherent in each episode. But the improvements in technology and the greater vividness of the imagery only serve to better present the self-sufficiently colourful activities of the creatures themselves.

The pygmy three-toed sloth opens the show. The male’s search for a mate is presented in a way anthropomorphic enough to be worthy of any modern ‘romcom’. Cinematic string music plays in the background, lending a sincerity and drama in contrast to the comic movements of the sloth as his attempt to follow the female sloth’s call ends in disappointment. A pair of colossal Komodo dragons then duel in a ferocious display of their primeval strength; ‘the largest lizards on the planet’ (Planet Earth II, BBC One) demonstrate their namesake and their resemblance to our conceptions of dragons.

By demonstrating what is so brilliant yet delicate about these wildernesses, the need to protect them is implicitly underlined

The plight of the sea-going iguana hatchlings perhaps proved to be the most fraught of the natural dramas though. This furious game of cat and mouse, or iguana and racer snake (as I feel it should now be proverbially known), had all the terror and adrenaline of a Hollywood car chase. In June the hatchlings emerge from the sands where the eggs were buried, and migrate over to the colony of adult iguanas. But no sooner are these young iguanas out of the eggshell than they are immersed into the brutalities of the natural world. As they climb above ground and move to find others of their kind, racer snakes emerge and the race begins. The footage captures the incredible chase of the iguanas and snakes, and when it seems a fair if cruel battle, more of the insidious snakes appear, terrifyingly fast. One iguana becomes gripped by these snakes, seemingly lost, but somehow manages to pry free and run up the rocks. It scrambles madly up the cliff – as snakes drop away in a very cinematic mode – before finally reaching other iguanas. ‘A near miraculous escape’ as Attenborough puts it.

Other highlights include the long-distance love story of the Southern Buller’s albatross; the male awaits his mate after an interval of six months. Will she return? Has she met an unfortunate fate in her journeys across the seas? Thankfully not, and the pair are reunited and complete their complex ‘dance’ in celebration. The lives of the fairy tern and the Noddy tern are recounted in all their tragedy; they are prey to egg-poaching birds and sticky seeds from the Pisonia (‘birdcatcher’) tree which ends the lives of many of the fledglings before they have even begun. The episode concludes with a look at a chinstrap penguin colony in the south Atlantic. Their lives in such a harsh environment testify to the resourcefulness and courage of these much-loved creatures.

Although evidently enjoyable as a programme, Planet Earth II also works to provide keener perspectives of the natural world. By demonstrating what is so brilliant yet delicate about these wildernesses, it implicitly underlines the need to protect them; as Attenborough states in the introduction, ‘never have those wildernesses been as fragile and as precious as they are today.’ The programme’s appeal can perhaps be explained by its departure from human concerns in a media world saturated by anthropocentrism. As Julian Hector, Head of the BBC Natural History Unit commented, ‘[w]hen so much is going on in the human world, that the natural world has an agenda all of its own, regardless, gives us a place to escape.’

Maybe it is the idea of an ‘escape’ that is so appealing to audiences, the taking a step back from our stressful political climate; it is the possibility of an escape from the politicised struggles of the week. Although Planet Earth II would seem to span all the genres of human theatricality – comedy, tragedy, romance – at heart it stresses the fundamental brilliance of nature itself and how the narratives of nature can be far more dramatic and vital than many of ours.

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