You’d think, living in Big Sur, we’d have our fill of Nature. But nooooo, we while away our evening hours watching the BBC’s Planet Earth documentaries. We watch them over and over, enjoying them more each time. They’re an exercise in how many ways we can say “WOW.” We spice up our commentary with “Oh, my god,” “Unbelievable,” and “No way!”
If you’re living on Planet Earth, you’ve probably heard of this expansive series, created by the BBC over a 5-year period, with a budget of $25 million. The film-making is wildly innovative, the scale immense, from spores to outer space, the sound amazing. The Diaries, explaining the most challenging aspect of making each episode, are as insightful as the episodes themselves, in their way. There’s just never been a nature documentary this good. It’s clearly a labor of love, an artistic masterpiece and well, WOW.
Of course, since this is the Rowland-Jones household, a bit of irreverent humor creeps into our awe-filled viewing time. It doesn’t help that the narrator, David Attenborough, has a plummy upper class Brit accent, with dramatic timing that recalls Monty Python, to everybody. With all due respect, there’s something about his voice that simply demands ridicule.
He makes a perfect babysitter for the under 8 set when they visit and parents want to sneak away to watch the sunset and drink a glass of wine. “I feel so good that my kid is being educated by David Attenborough,” one Dad said recently. And while it’s not snide, exactly, the impersonations are rife with plays on the educational commentary—“Ahem, and then the tiny desert animals urinated on themselves to cool down and survive the terrible noon-day heat.” Only mad dogs and Englishmen…
Probably the single most impressive feature of this series is the aerial filming of migrations of all kinds of creatures. Next would be mating rituals never before filmed, such as the flying leaf tree frog, who jumps from leaf to leaf, then on top of the nearest female. “The male frogs have dry toes, which enable them to keep a viselike grip on their moist partners.” Yes, Attenborough actually says this.
The complete lack of inhibition in the mating department is delightful. The males make the extravagant displays, and the females, for the most part, get to do the choosing. The Bird of Paradise from New Guinea with 6 individual antennae-type feathers popping out of his head has a mating dance that is a wonder to behold. He becomes another creature entirely, with bright blue dots in his crown, his feathers expanding around him into a saucer shape as he hops energetically from side to side. Another favorite is the Gobi desert camel, who spanks his own behind and squeals to attract a mate. Makes humans look kind of tame.
If you sat through an afternoon movie in grade school, you expect the nitty gritty of watching the small, old and weak get predated. But in Planet Earth the sense of you-are-there is enhanced by the high definition filming — dying critters’ last gasps and body spasms. Lions jumping on a baby elephant’s back at night, spiders ingesting ants trapped in the bottom of tropical pitcher plants, great white sharks engulfing seals, ducklings gobbled by foxes and on and on. Not recommended viewing with your TV dinner.
Then there’s the Rorschach test of who likes what. What one person can’t stand to watch, say, hunting eels swimming in a pack underwater, another person thinks is cool. We almost lost it with the cave-dwelling cockroaches, along with our neighbor, whose enormous screen made watching them cavort en masse pretty nauseating.
Everyone, however, likes babies. And all babies of all species, plant, animal, some insects, even fungi, are cute. What is that? Something deeply programmed into our reptilian brains. I wonder though, are baby sharks cute?
Planet Earth deliberately focuses on the world’s wonders, and not on the many threats to Nature, in order to foster a sense of joy instead of despair. Creating the feeling of relating to the natural world is of course a pre-requisite for generating a burning passion to save it from destruction.
Since so much of Planet Earth is footage most humans never see in person, I can’t help remembering the key scene in the ’73 film Soylent Green, starring the recently departed Charlton Heston in a very unusual role for him. New York City, 2022, and the planet has been destroyed by the Greenhouse Effect (imagine that.) Nature is dead and food is mass- produced in unappetizing biscuits, rationed to rioting urbanites. One character chooses to be euthanized. As he takes his lethal pills the mortuary staff shows him film of the world as it used to be, i.e. Nature: mountain meadows filled with flowers, waterfalls cascading down cliffs, beaches, plains, wildlife. This man had talked of this world he remembered, yet no one believed him. The joy on his face (the actor Edward G. Robinson, in his last film) made me weep.
Planet Earth may also make you weep, and not just with laughter (Toby's favorite quote so far: “Female asses are mysterious creatures. They come and go as they please, and much of their behavior seems unfathomable to an outsider.”) It will make you amazed and proud to be a citizen of this planet, happy to be alive, and determined to savor as much of our wonderful world as you can.
Photos: Thanks BBC!