It’s been quite a rough year but, thankfully, there was a welcome respite from the endless stream of bad news – a weekly 60-minute dose of highly-concentrated awe and wonder that would uplift and inspire even the most jaded and disillusioned viewer.
For 6 wonderful weeks, Planet Earth returned to our screens, causing many a jaw to drop and eye to water as it showed more amazing footage from many of the most extreme and environments of the world – even man-made ones. The fact that, after decades of documentaries which have pored over every inch of the planet with cutting-edge tech, there are still so many routine behaviours and remarkable events from the natural world that we are only now seeing for the first time is incredible.
Each episode featured several little vignettes following a dazzling variety of different animals and creating a narrative out of nature. These scenes were intensely emotional, full of tragedy, thrills, death and beauty, while also frequently showing how much of a prick nature can be.
Pity the poor baby iguanas who scuttle out of their sandy homes to face an ambush of snakes before they can reach their parents (these scenes were so nerve-shreddingly tense they put many big-budget thrillers to shame). Be glad you’re not one of the mountain goats who have to clamber along crumbling, razor-thin paths on a cliff face to reach the only source of water on the ground, where predators lie in wait. Marvel at the snow leopards fighting for a mate in the Himalayas. Laugh at the sloth who swims across a surging river to reach a potential partner and gets rejected.
The thrill of Planet Earth II comes from knowing that all of it is real, these things happen on a regular basis and there are millions of other moments that occur when the cameras aren’t there, many of which may be even more amazing than what the world-class crew managed to capture.
Filmed (but not broadcast) in 4K ultra-HD, the show’s higher resolution made tiny details that were previously unnoticeable crystal-clear, like a foetal tadpole breaking out of its egg early to flee from a deadly wasp while it’s transparent frog father tries to protect the other eggs.
It also allowed the show to broadcast eye-poppingly-pretty panoramic shots of a large island populated by hundreds of thousands of penguins, frosty mountain valleys that transform into lush green forests, a plague of locusts flying across Madagascar, and a peregrine falcon perched on an aerial overlooking Manhattan.
It looks nice, basically. When writing a review of this series, it’s very tempting to just type ‘It’s great because, well, LOOK AT IT!’, stick a load of pictures underneath and call it a day, but that would be lazy. There’s more to this than just eye candy.
For me, the most intriguing part of Planet Earth II was the final episode, which looked at city wildlife. There had been moments in other episodes where, in-between all the animal facts and gentle narration, Sir David Attenborough would briefly explain how humans had been making the world much worse. E.g: A parade of crabs now get attacked by crazy yellow acid-spitting ants literally called ‘crazy yellow ants’ which humans introduced to the crabs’ island, a jungle in Madagascar has been deforested so much that it’s cut the local lemur population in half, etc, etc, oh dear, oh dear.
Perhaps, I thought, the “Cities” episode would be where he’d really let loose, wagging his finger at the camera and scolding viewers for irreversibly ruining the planet with all the pollution and greenhouse gases we create that damage the habitats shown over the course of the series. It would be entirely justified, if a bit of a depressing way to end the show.
But the programme kept a light touch on its lecturing and the actual episode didn’t mention climate change once, instead giving an unexpectedly hopeful view of how humans can coexist with the natural world.
The camera crew applied the same film-making techniques they used in jungles and deserts to film skyscrapers and streets, which was a memorably odd viewing experience that gave us an exciting new perspective of very familiar territory.
There was also plenty of humour to be found in seeing animals learning to cope with humans and vice versa. Monkeys ran along rooftops to steal food from a market in Mumbai, making the locals furious, and a lonely bird in Townsville used colourful scraps of discarded rubbish to build a display to attract a mate, which even included a small felt heart.
An incredibly-edited timelapse of a city at night full of glowing neon and bright lights lead into heartbreaking footage of baby turtles on a beach struggling to find their way as the light pollution from the nearby town disoriented them. Millions of viewers watched in horror as the helpless creatures wandered away from the moonlight, which is supposed to guide them to the sea, and onto busy roads and into sewer drains. This was the only time the episode focussed on the drawbacks of city life on wild animals, which, all things considered, shows remarkable restraint from the producers.
It was a very positive hour of television. It revealed the mutually-beneficial relationship between a pack of hyenas and the residents of an African town: the hyenas get meat from the butcher shop and the locals like them because they peacefully ward off bad spirits. It showcased futuristic architecture in Singapore that created a jungle environment out of an enormous steel framework filled with flowers and trees. There were flocks of birds which flew and danced in mysterious patterns above Rome for reasons even Sir David couldn’t explain. The episode ended with an optimistic and inspiring piece to camera from the legend himself, a wonderful send-off to an unprecedented episode of this unforgettable documentary.
Last but not least, the final ten minutes of each episode had a Diaries segment dedicated to the problems faced by the camera crew on their ambitious treks to remote parts of the world. These sections were just as fascinating as the footage they filmed, answering the question that everyone asks while watching documentaries like this: “How the hell did they film that?”. The answer, it turns out, is with months of preparation, plenty of clever improvisation, tough travelling and, sometimes, quite a lot of luck.
A documentary of this calibre only comes around once a decade. Cherish it.