Planet Earth II is quickly becoming some of the most popular television of the year, and it’s easy to see why. 10.6 million viewers tuned in on Sunday night to watch a series that required incredible amounts of skill, knowledge and money – not to mention 117 filming trips to 40 different countries – to make. Add all this to the voice of David Attenborough, whose narration echoes both his unique lifetime of experience and his childlike wonder which remains, and the show was always going to be a hit. But since Attenborough’s shows have always been popular, what is it about this one, and the timing of it, that has made it the notable public sensation that it is?
Planet Earth shows us certain animals like never before. It gets up close, with incredible camera angles. Expertise and bravery from the camera men involved, alongside clever use of remotely operated cameras, allow us to view animals in minute detail, and even see them as though they are running past us. Yet despite the new technology, the animals are presented in the way we’ve become accustomed to. As much as the hundreds upon hundreds of hours of footage taken in the making of this show is as pure an insight into animal behaviour as we’ll get on TV, it is presented in a way that gives these creatures an enhanced human side, much like we have become accustomed to in animated films, or most recently, in TV adverts such as this years offering from John Lewis.
We see these animals in all their glory, but at the same time there is an emphasis on their similarities with us. We only have to look to the shows official twitter pages to see how they compare them to more human stories – BBC Earth’s twitter page has a tongue in cheek tweet where it shows a large group of flamingos moving together, with the tagline ‘When there’s free cake on the other side of the office.’
This is evident across the show as a whole. Each brilliantly edited segment is almost like a short film in itself, with carefully chosen shots and subtly employed music to build the tension, and many of them have their own heroes and villains. If you were cheering on the Ibex, and hating the fox that chased them, it’s partly because they’re ‘cute’, but also because as much as the footage is real and true to life, the story attached is similar to one that might be told by great storytellers like Roald Dahl. If you want a different story, put the show on mute and imagine the creature chasing the Ibex is Fantastic Mr Fox, and the whole scene might take on a different complexion.
This doesn’t make the show any less impressive. And these little stories all marry together so well it’s hard not to imagine a director shouting over it all: ‘Cut! That was great snakes, but can we try it one more time?’ likewise, it’s just as powerful. It is a nature documentary that makes the viewer feel rather than think, and the cruelty of the animal kingdom often hits home.
One person tweeted ironically: ‘when u think uni is stressful but then u watch #planetearth2 and realise u didn’t have to outrun racer snakes the day u were born so alls gd’. And while most people won’t take the comparisons with ourselves quite so literally, the reality of the scenes on show make it the ultimate escape; television that not only distracts us from any nagging issues or concerns on a Sunday night, but also reminds us of the epic world around us and makes them feel, by comparison, smaller.
This is certainly part of its appeal. Reaction on twitter has varied from the simple joy of watching a bear dance to the declaration that ‘Attenborough on a Sunday night is like a gift reminding us the world is still an amazing place despite mankind.’ So perhaps even though there is a little too much of ‘us’ put into the show, by its makers and by ourselves as viewers, for it to be as educational and informative as aspects of the genre that have come before, it can certainly be forgiven. Whether it’s the technology and skill used, the stories told, or the imagery presented that entrances us as viewers isn’t as important as the fact that it is incredible television, showcasing the beauty of the world around us at a time when people may well need reminded of it.