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Planet Earth II

Kristin Grogan

Planet Earth II
BBC, Nov-Dec 2016

Ten years after Planet Earth first appeared on screens, the BBC series, more blockbuster than documentary, is back. Planet Earth 2 is the second of its kind; it may well be the last. Split into six episodes—islands, mountains, jungles, deserts, grasslands, and cities—the new series oscillates between ode and elegy, often within the space of a single segment. If the series invites us to share its rapture, it reminds us, too, of the harm, which may well be irrevocable, that we have done to our planet. Towards the end of each episode, David Attenborough delivers a lament for the world we have destroyed, and are still—with ever more drive and efficiency—destroying.

The series has received almost universal acclaim, and, I think, not unduly. Alongside the familiar scenes of soaring eagles, thwarted lion hunts, and male birds undertaking increasingly elaborate performances to impress their female counterparts, Planet Earth 2 also offers some genuinely new, or at least newly represented, interactions, both between animals and between humans and the natural world. In the first episode alone, arguably its strongest, the now (in)famous iguana vs. snake showdown will surely go down as three of the finest minutes in television history; as should the death-defying penguins of Zavodovski Island as well as the heroic efforts of the film crew. Then there is the sexually frustrated three-toed pygmy sloth who swims, slowly and with determination, to find a mate, only to be promptly and pathetically cock-blocked by the sudden appearance of a baby sloth; or the paternal glass frog, protective of and disguised as his own eggs, who masterfully kicks away any wasp that dares to come near; not to mention the heartbreakingly lovely fairy tern, or the jaguar who manages to kill a ten-foot caiman. I could go on (the snow leopard, the plague of locusts in Madagascar, the bat vs. scorpion, the pole-dancing bears). It is difficult to write about Planet Earth 2 because it is difficult in general to write with any critical sophistication about all representations of genuine ecstasy without unraveling into inchoate rapture.

In this world, animals are imbued with character and personality, and this is an approach that centres the viewers’ emotional responses above all else. Thus even if humans are only rarely present on-screen, our emotional engagement with the natural world is, implicitly, the whole point of the series. It is as if the show, and Attenborough in particular, are trying to remind us that this sort of relationship with the natural world is still the best means we have to access and experience the sublime, and that this, without requiring any further justification, is worth protecting, preserving, and making widely accessible.

For me the weakest point was the final episode, on cities, which provided more familiar material—pigeons and murmurations—and made less use of the exchanges between humans and animals than it might have done and upon which so much of the show’s achievement implicitly rests. It never quite dealt with, and at times smoothed over, the vast historical, economic, and political differences between, say, Rome and Mumbai, or Singapore and Harar. These are real differences, after all, which shape the cities’ relationships with their animal citizens. Still, that episode had its high points, even if these relied somewhat on old techniques of exoticising non-Western places: leopards prowling Mumbai at night, langurs leaping around the rooftops of Jodhpur. The scenes in the walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, showing its residents feeding bones to hyenas, were particularly resonant. Partly this scene’s success was because human-animal interaction was centred in a way that showed how genuinely nourishing, on both sides, such a relationship might possibly be.

Yet a quick Google search will bring up the blog posts and contributions to Lonely Planet forums by remarkably unlikeable tourists who have visited Harar and paid to see the hyenas being fed (and who often, apparently, feel that they have paid too much). Should we care, then, that it has been romanticized on screen, that the real role of most people—consumption—is omitted from the show? This feels particularly urgent given the series’ thick layer of Hollywood gloss: its slick cinematography; its (admittedly breathtaking) score by Hans Zimmer; its enviable budget and its penchant for close-ups and time lapses that seem designed to showcase its artillery of photographic equipment. On screen, human consumption of the natural world is absent; at the same time we, as viewers, sit at home with our televisions or laptops, comfortably replicating and performing that same act of consumption—the one, that is, which, having been left unchecked, has brought our world to the state it is in today.

The show received, initially, an ecstatic reaction; that it was more popular than The X-Factor in the 16–34 age bracket was taken to signify less that young people simply enjoy spectacular television than that the planet may yet be saved by generations to come. But recently some critics have argued that the show’s appeal is due more to its soothing escapism than its political urgency or ability to be directly helpful. Martin Hughes-Games, a presenter of BBC’s Springwatch, dubbed it a “disaster” for wildlife. Attenborough himself has described Planet Earth 2 as a form of therapy, a description against which we might validly bristle. There is some truth to Hughes-Games’ critique. Throughout the series, while climate change looms large, there are very few visual examples of its effects; few scenes of sweeping and real devastation; few dead, hunted, or harvested animals; little evidence of the disfiguring effects of chemicals or other pollutants. There is less animal-on-animal violence than we might expect: strikingly, few of the predators’ hunts are successful. There are few torn and dismembered carcasses (rare for a wildlife show); most of the animals that are successfully predated upon are fish or insects, which are invested with less emotional weight than birds or mammals. This is a show where the good guy, for the most part, overcomes. The BBC refused to show dead penguins, fearing that the birds too closely resembled ‘little men in dinner jackets’. Such a decision is telling, as are the BBC’s assurances that every baby turtle or hatchling in the final episode, confused by the bright city lights, was picked up and returned to the sea. The BBC, a critical reading might say, wants to coddle its viewers, to provide us with emotional experiences that include awe, gentle fear, admiration, relief, sympathy, perhaps even sadness, but it refuses to leave us devastated, even as the show’s main subject is, inevitably, devastation.

A more generous reading, and one I find more convincing, might suggest that Attenborough and the BBC want to instill and conjure hope, to rest us in the shade of Singapore’s supertrees for a while—which might be possible, if only the rest of the world would follow suit. And, perhaps, they simply want to remind us that life is, after all, still there, still unimaginably glorious; and that nothing (nothing!) that humans have made measures or will ever measure up to it; and that this life deserves our care, our attention, our rage, our resources, our energy. A call to action, after all, can also take the form of a reminder of all that we have to lose.

The final scene in the series shows Attenborough, at 90 years old, at the top of the Shard in London, delivering a plea that we do all in our power to help our natural world. It would take a cold and flinty heart indeed to remain unmoved by our beloved narrator, battered by the wind but still remarkably firm and resolute, reminding us of our complicity in the devastation of our world and of the shared responsibility we bear. Let us, then, to paraphrase Thoreau, endeavor to learn the lessons that Attenborough, and the world he shows us, have to teach.

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Kristin Grogan is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College.