Planet Earth's endless sense of wonder
Planet Earth II reminds us habitats are dwindling, sometimes disappearing
In an early episode of the BBC’s new season of Planet Earth II we're introduced to a frisky bear with an itchy back. Down from the high wastes for the brief Rockies' summer, the depicted bear can fatten up for the coming winter by as much as 180 kg, or so we’re told.
When he isn’t pouring meadow grass down his gullet, said bear finds a well-rooted pine and proceeds to rub his back with slightly frantic, mouth-watering abandon. His back-scratching has another purpose: it functions as a kind of calling-card, telling the female bear world that he’s free for summer fun and games. Should they pass by this particular pine noticeboard, they will sniff the air and know.
It’s a lovely scene, shot from alongside and above, and it not only reminds us of those difficult-to-get-at places on our backs, but of animals’ rich and various private lives. The programme makes one feel a bit like Noah: new camera technology and sheer BBC perspicacity have allowed us as viewers to step — as it were — where no armchair viewers have stepped before.
We see flamingos at 4,000m in the Andes try to extract their feet from overnight ice (“Walking on thin ice is a risky business,” warbles Sir David Attenborough drily) and watch bobcats hunt golden-eye ducks, sometimes with hilarious results. There are beautiful sequences of sloths swimming and we see what passes for the fairy terns’ rather relaxed approach to nest-building.
Towards the end of the first episode we are even taken to Zavodovski Island in the South Atlantic, a barren and presumably smelly place that houses the largest and most raucous penguin colony in the world.
Elsewhere we see a pair of southern Buller’s albatross reunite after months apart (they are mates for life) and are reminded that such is the balancing ability of ibex kids, photographed on the mountains of the Arabian Peninsula, that they could probably balance on whatever remains of Zimbabwe’s shrinking economy. It is, in a manner of speaking, a difficult feat indeed.
Each of the six episodes of the second season of Planet Earth is yoked together by a single theme, such as islands, mountains or cities. The soft and not particularly intrusive didacticism of the series is to remind us that such habitats are dwindling, sometimes disappearing completely. Island animals, for example, often live in very finely tuned environments, exposed to rising sea levels and global warming.
Attenborough, still wonder-struck at 90, tells us matter-of-factly that 80% of extinct species have been islanders. Soon, some of the creatures we see on Planet Earth, like the water-averse, three-toed pygmy sloth (pronounced “sleurth” by Sir David) might not be with us at all.
The threat of extinction hovers over the programme like
Yet Planet Earth is almost a victim of its own success. It is easily possible to get caught up in the visual splendour of outdoor life; in the pristine alpine heights at which the snow leopard dutifully pads. At times it all seems like just another form of conspicuous consumption — have another spoonful of that, another lick of this. And while Attenborough clearly wants to preserve and conserve, there is little advice as to how this project might actually be achieved. Global conservation is a tricky, money-consuming, delicate business, featuring many countries and a host of competing interests.
Attenborough has helped, if only slightly, because he has famously said that he would prefer it if his great-grandchildren didn’t see elephants only on the pages of picture books. It’s a laudable sentiment but what do we do to achieve that goal? How do we stop oil tankers from cleaning their empty tanks deep at sea? How do we stop the farming of beef that helps with the destruction of the ozone layer? And after the seas have been filled with plastic and the forests have shrunk, after the intrepid BBC cameramen have captured what they need, what then?
“Who,” as Dr Seuss’s Lorax famously asked, “speaks for the trees?”
Planet Earth is a victim of its own majesty and compelling brilliance in another sense. There is a time in every programme where either you (if you are sitting by yourself) or the person next to you, turns around and asks, awestruck: “How on earth was that achieved? I didn’t know that cameras could fly or depict a bird’s point of view like they just have?”
The answers are many and various but sometimes cameras (in the case of Alpine eagles) are camouflaged and buried for days on end in freezing hides; sometimes cameras are left on remote peaks, waiting to be “triggered” by passing snow leopards. On one occasion in episode two, the effect of the dizzy plunge of an Alpine eagle towards its prey is created by a cameraman sitting in a harness with an experienced paraglider as they parachute off a peak and land in an Alpine meadow. The BBC, it seems, is no longer content to offer the viewer the spectacle. It must also offer the viewer the spectacle of how the spectacle was made.
These and other questions have inspired fevered debate in the UK, where the letters pages of The Guardian have in recent weeks been full of spirited arguments for and against Attenborough and the programme. Careful not to be too intrusive – and always stepping lightly – Attenborough is keen not to overshadow the sundry sloths, snow leopards, or the pair of southern Buller’s albatross we see in his programme.
Finally, though, they are arbitrary animals playing nameless cameos, while he (timeless geriatric that he is) is the real star of the show. His capacity for wonder is infectious, his sense of comic timing impeccable, his ability for fun that of a child. He never says too much and seldom says too little, flying through the animal kingdom at just the right course.
We might like or identify with the animals first but, finally, we leave the programme with a sense of Attenborough, the slightly breathless naturalist bashing about the world in search of another episode of eat or be eaten. How, to be fair, could it be any other way?
Make no mistake, it’s quite possible to put all of this aside. It’s quite possible to simply sink into appreciating worlds we are likely to never see in the flesh. For Planet Earth is nothing if not a grand democracy, from the waddling penguin, ever so like the English civil servant of caricature, to the elusive and shy snow leopard, an animal that sprays his or her scent on obscure rocks — a sort of leopard Facebook. Such markers tell other snow leopards that he’s been around and might come this way again. So it’s the dating game — but it’s conducted at a height where we’d struggle to breathe.
It’s this kind of thing that makes the programme — for all the impressive pyrotechnics — just a tad tiresome, because it can’t but help peddle the view that wild animals are just like us. In point of fact, they’re not. They don’t drink cappuccino and they don’t worry about the rand. More than anything else, they are preciously themselves, which isn’t an invitation to reduce them to what we are in the slightest.
Planet Earth II
Channel 184 on DStv