In May this year, an executive decision was made to name a new polar research vessel the RSS Sir David Attenborough instead of the name which won the runaway vote, Boaty McBoatface. Though a backlash did ensue, it was minimal. In this case, the overruling of the public vote did not anger many, and even when it did, never was David Attenborough himself thought an unworthy candidate; he was not the crux of the problem. There are not many people in the world who would universally, be thought a deserving figure after which to name a ship – yet here we have a bumbling old naturalist. This is, of course, the definition of a ‘national treasure’ – someone uninvolved in politics and real life, a public figure to whom we can escape and love as some love their country. A national treasure instils pride in the personages our country can produce, despite the terror that current events instil in us daily.
It is bizarre to think a nature presenter is our most beloved popular figure, but as anyone would argue, he doesn’t just present any nature programme. The camera crew of Planet Earth II have travelled to the ends of the earth to observe some of the rarest creatures on this planet. In fact, one feature of the series is the ‘Diaries’ section at the end of each episode, which tells of the lengths to which they went in order to capture shots so excellent, nothing else on television, or even film, really rivals them. Episode 1, “Islands”, included an onerous expedition to Zavodovski in the Southern Ocean, a volcanic island which thousands of chinstrap penguins call home – the crew had to haul their equipment up a craggy cliff to even set foot on it. On the other hand, episode 2, “Mountains”, focused on the team’s struggles in trying to film a shot in the point of view of a golden eagle, using a professional parachutist attached to a cameraman. Like elaborate end credits, ‘Diaries’ gives Planet Earth II’s dedicated cameramen and women the recognition they deserve, whilst simultaneously wowing the audience still more at their sheer endurance.
Incredible cinematography means animals are shown to a near human level, which incites our empathy
What makes this new level of cinematography possible in nature documentaries though are advances in camera technology. Where drones capture sweeping landscapes, remote cameras are able to get shots of painfully shy or scarily aggressive animals, which the human eye could never realistically see. The end to the captivating story of the snow leopards at the end of episode 2 utilises this extremely well, as the triggering of the cameras served the narrative in the return of the lone daughter, previously part of a mother daughter pair. Attenborough’s enchanting voice on the top tells us that this unfortunately means it is unlikely they will see each other again.
Though the technology and crew make Planet Earth II’s artistry possible, it is the structuring of the episodes into several mini narratives that really makes it shine. Admittedly, this is a staple of nature documentaries, but the depth given to each individual ‘scene’, partly due to fabulous camerawork, is truly unparalleled. It is this, which brings the animals shown to a near human level: it incites empathy. One gleaming example is the gripping chase of racer snakes after baby marine iguanas in episode 1 – the scrabbling of claws and flying ribbons of snakes is as tense as it is emotional, the iguanas are running for their lives. For some, the snakes win and their life is over before it has begun. But for others, they sprint to freedom. The star of the episode even manages to wriggle out of a knot of them before scarpering up the rocks at the end of the beach. Paired with a dramatic soundtrack, it feels more like watching an action filled scene of Game of Thrones than a Sunday night nature documentary.
So what is our obsession with Planet Earth II? It’s not just David Attenborough, however much we adore him; it’s not just the stunning shots the crew manage to get; it’s not just the purely cinematic quality of the picture due to the technological advances of the cameras. It’s an amalgamation of these things to create a series of empathetic stories at which we can laugh and cry. Essentially, Planet Earth II satisfies our innate human desire for an exciting but resoundingly natural narrative.
Don’t miss out: Sundays at 8pm on BBC 1, or catch up on iPlayer.