Reader, some life advice: Find someone who cares about your happiness as much as I cared about the baby iguanas in first episode of Planet Earth II.
Eighteen minutes in, the episode visits one of the Galapagos Islands, where marine iguanas—the world’s only seagoing lizard—are entering the world. Newly hatched, they crawl out of the sand in the island’s interior, and must make the dangerous trek to the coasts, where they can feed. One does so, and in its wake, a snake follows. Then two. Three. Soon, dozens of Galapagos racer snakes pour out of the black rocks at the hatchlings, slithering across the sand and into your nightmares.
Every shot and musical cue heightens the tension. The racers wait in gangs, heads raised like a mythological Hydra. They come at the baby iguanas from all directions. One youngster emerges to see another being constricted mere feet away. It tiptoes past. It freezes to avoid being detected. It makes a break for it—and is caught by a racer lying in ambush. All seems lost, but somehow, it manages to slip through the ensnaring coils. Predatory jaws snap at its legs and tail, and every strike is a narrow miss. It is free, and millions of viewers finally exhale.
The iguana run is just one of several extraordinary sequences that fill the BBC’s latest landmark wildlife series—the highly anticipated sequel to its equally groundbreaking predecessor, Planet Earth. When that series was first broadcast in 2006, it was the most expensive nature documentary ever produced.
The results were epic, in the truest sense of the word. The BBC had filmed African wild dogs before, but Planet Earth showed us a hunt from above, using gyroscope-stabilized cameras to track the pack as it worked together to catch impala. Earlier shows had revealed mere glimpses of snow leopards, but Planet Earth showed one careening down a cliff at improbably high speed as it chased after markhor goats.
It gave us great white sharks exploding from the water in slow motion, lions bringing down elephants in the dark, and cordyceps fungi sprouting from the heads of ants in time-lapse. Its cameras swooped over vast flocks and shoals of animals, with each individual clearly visible—Planet Earth, after all, was the first nature series to be shot in high definition. A friend of mine liked to watch it as close to his TV as possible, so the scenes filled his peripheral vision and offered pure escapism. Ten years later, the sequel—unfortunately not called Planet Earth II: Planet Earthier—continues that legacy.
As before, each episode will focus on the animal life of a new ecosystem, starting with islands, and continuing with mountains, jungles, deserts, grasslands, and cities. (At just six episodes, Planet Earth II is just half the length of its precursor, but that’s less of a loss than it might seem. Many ecosystems in the original Planet Earth have been covered extensively by other series—the poles by Frozen Planet, and the various marine habitats by the upcoming Ocean: New Frontiers.)
As before, the irreplaceable David Attenborough lends his voice to the proceedings—a voice full of both childlike glee and avuncular gravitas, a voice redolent of honey, velvet, and home.
As before, the series breaks new visual ground—it’s the first to be filmed in ultra-high-definition, and features shots that seems utterly implausible. The camera tracks an indri (the biggest of lemurs) as it jumps from tree to tree in Madagascar. It looks up at a serval cat as it stalks through the savannah.
In the opening episode—Islands—a pygmy three-toed sloth paddles in search of a partner. Two titanic male Komodo dragons slam into each other. Two Buller’s albatross, having reunited after six months apart, engage in a tender greeting ritual. And it’s all visually spectacular. The greens are that much greener, the blues are that much bluer. There are more sunsets than a Michael Bay movie, and more lens flares than a J. J. Abrams one.
And yet. As with many modern wildlife documentaries, there is no connective tissue between these disparate scenes, no overarching narrative to link the individual dramas together. They could appear in any order.
It’s instructive to compare the episode to one that aired 32 years ago. In 1984, Attenborough released The Living Planet, the second of his great Life series. The spiritual forerunner to both Planet Earths, it too focused on a different ecosystem in each episode, and the 10th (you can watch the whole thing here) looked at islands.
It has a flow to it, with ideas building on each other, and every new animal and plant fitting into the greater theme. Which is this: “Islands are where animals and plants become transformed into new species with extraordinary speed,” says Attenborough. He shows how island birds often become flightless, and island reptiles often become giants. He shows how, on Hawaii, honeycreeper birds and Drosophila flies have adapted to new niches and so radiated into a multitude of new species. That, after all, is why islands are so interesting—why they’re worthy of an hour of your viewing time. They are where evolution goes to town, producing life at its most atypical. It’s no coincidence that both Darwin and Wallace came up with the idea of evolution by natural selection after lengthy voyages to islands.
Such themes are front and center in The Living Planet, but just casually hinted at in Planet Earth II. In the former, islands are the point of the episode. In the latter, they’re more of a backdrop. Where The Living Planet offers a cohesive essay about life on islands, but Planet Earth II dishes up an anthology of short stories that happen to take place on islands.
It would be too knee-jerk to ascribe this change to the death of intellectual TV, where education has been sacrificed at the altar of spectacle. I think it’s more that nature documentaries have been limited by the same technology that makes them so compelling. When you can get beautiful, high-definition, slow-motion, ground-level shots of an animal, it’s not enough to just show it and start talking. You need build-up. You need to swoop in on the island of, follow a tail as it drags across a beach, catch a scaly body in the reflection of a tidal pool, and reveal a powerful clawed foot as it thumps into the sand—and only then can you show the entire Komodo dragon. The storytelling language of wildlife documentaries has become more cinematic, and every vignette becomes longer. That necessarily reduces the amount of material you can get through in a given hour.
Another factor must surely be the degree of Attenborough’s involvement. It’s a common misconception that shows like Planet Earth and Planet Earth II are “Attenborough shows”; in truth, he merely narrates and appears in the odd introductory scene. When he actually writes and presents a series, the results tend to be more didactic but no less fantastic—even now. His latest show Light on Earth, a little-known one-off program about luminescent animals, is vintage Attenborough—spectacular, densely informative, and released just this year.
Perhaps none of this matters. People don’t care about the natural world because of the facts they can recite about it, but because of what they feel for it. And in stoking emotions, Planet Earth II amply succeeds.
Late in the episode, we see a horde of 50 million Christmas Island crabs marching to the sea to reproduce. But some don’t make it. They are beset by yellow crazy ants, which spray formic acid into their eyes and mouths, disorienting, blinding, and ultimately killing them. “Humans brought these ant invaders here and now humans are having to control them,” Attenborough says. “Of all the species that have become extinct in recent years, around 80 percent have been islanders.” That statement, laid over a shot of ants crawling over a crab’s dead face, will arguably do more to reveal the plight of the world’s fauna than a thousand articles and lectures.