David Attenborough’s (well, narrated by him at any rate) Planet Earth 2 has just ended to a metaphorical standing ovation by all the media and the general public and is still being talked about several days after the ‘cities’ episode has aired – which is impressive considering most ‘trends’ are lucky to last more than a few hours on social media these days before people lose interest. I have watched the series with much attention and noted the overwhelmingly positive reactions to it, it is truly great to see a nature documentary getting such high praise, although my own thoughts on it haven’t been quite so one-sided.
I have in the past criticised nature documentaries for not being very diverse, or representative, of the organisms found on Earth – most focus on large, furry, relatable animals rather than taking in the scope of invertebrates and plants. With Planet Earth 2 I found that although they did show quite a few things I have seen before in other documentaries (wolves hunting musk ox, darkling beetles collecting dew etc.) and there was a bias towards large vertebrates, I was nonetheless overall pleased with the diversity of species shown. In each episode there were multiple spectacles or species which I have never seen on television before (e.g. the racer snakes on Galapagos) and they did include some invertebrates – although plants got short thrift.
I could also forgive them for recycling wildlife spectacles that have been done before (sometimes many times before) because on the whole they were filmed and presented in a truly original way that showed it in a new light and with beautiful detail. The thing with Planet Earth 2 that did give me cause to think was the way the wildlife was presented, the tone of the show and specifically the narration.
I can’t shake the feeling that calling Planet Earth a documentary is actually misleading, that the whole thing is not made for the purpose of actually educating viewers about the natural world – it is solely for entertainment. Now this is not to say that documentaries cannot also be entertaining, I just felt as I watched the show that all the images I was being shown, the way it was edited and presented to the viewer and the narration by David himself was all just to get people to go ‘wow’ and gush about it on social media. If I actually paid attention to what David was saying, very little of it was actually explaining the biology of what we were seeing, we were rarely told why or how the behaviour we were seeing was happening; there was, to be frank, very little actual science or education. At the end of each episode I thought to myself ‘now what did we learn from that?’ and each time I could only come up with enough biological facts to count on one hand.
But boy, it is entertaining isn’t it?
The BBC’s approach seems to be one of showing increasingly jaw-dropping spectacles with as much drama as possible, shot in the most amazing HD quality and cut together in the most entertaining way possible – resulting in high viewing figures and a lot of media excitement. This is purely speculation but I am guessing that the reason Planet Earth got such high viewership was a) because of David Attenborough’s narration, b) because of the incredible camerawork and HD and c) because it provides high entertainment value with little brain-work involved for the viewer.
The thing is that properly educational, science-filled nature documentaries are still being made, all of these have great camerawork and great quality images plus genuinely interesting and fact-filled narration. But they are hidden away on BBC four and get (comparatively) low viewership – many of these have had to resort to getting famous names to do the narration in order to pull in viewers, regardless of whether that person has any connection with or knowledge of wildlife. The thing is though, on a Sunday evening people want something ‘easy’ to watch, something fun that involves little effort or thinking. (I don’t particularly blame them).
However, I cannot deny that Planet Earth was very, very good and that such enormous interest by the public in a programme about nature can only be positive. At the end of the day millions of people actually really enjoyed watching the lives of non-human organisms and the animals in the show got massive press-coverage and interest – people may not have been educated, but for 6 weeks wildlife was high on everyone’s mind. Whether any long-term benefits of the programme (and indeed of David’s impassioned plea to viewers) on the conservation of these organisms and the planet in general will be felt is anyone’s guess and a topic for another day.
So although I still mourn the loss of proper educational nature documentaries (all that’s left of such programmes are DVD’s of David’s brilliant past series) presented by people who actually know their stuff (not random B-list actors), I suppose these glossy, big-budget nature-dramas are better than nothing and can only be positive, so I’d better give Planet Earth 2 a big round of applause. I just wonder what the hell we’re going to do when David’s gone. (The apocalypse I imagine).