Planet Earth II made us all into awestruck children once again and that was really important. It felt like a fairy tale didn’t it? Here is a sky. Here is a climate, as defined and intricate as any taken from fiction. Here are the inhabitants. Aren’t they strange? Some are scary. Hyenas moving like ghosts past front doors to the sound of a midnight whistle. Some are funny. Flamingos strutting en masse as if they were on fashion week runway. Some make your heart stop. Flinging themselves down mountains and cutting past peaks with inches to spare.
When a camera brings you to the eye-line of something entirely alien to you or me, as we sit at home with a heart rate rising and falling to the command of a perfect overture, it becomes all too real and strangely familiar at the same time. Penguins, barely a foot high, cease to be comic and gain a heartfelt respect as, coated in blood, they march steadfastly home to feed their family. The sand shifts gently and suddenly an iguana is born. At the same time the rocks open their eyes, becoming Medusa with a head of weaving snakes, ready to wrestle our new protagonists to death after a life that barely contained moments of daylight.
These episodes were years in the making. The footage took innovation, luck and guts to capture. The editing on occasion was the work of a narrative genius (it felt like a zombie chase scene because that’s exactly what they wanted it to feel like.) It wasn’t done just for the joy of showing us some interesting or fun creatures doing something weird on the far side of the world. It was made in a way that grabs you by either side of your head, drags you down into the mud, water or sand and says, “We share this space.”
Nature in action is a powerful force to behold. Adaptation allowing species to change in accordance with their environment is an event so inconceivably unlikely it could almost be fiction. As an environment changes, the animals have to change too. If this adaptation just happens to help the species do well and if and only if that species is able to breed successfully in enough numbers to maybe pass on that trait to its offspring then possibly, possibly, the leopard gets its spots. So sea iguanas existing on a rock in the middle of the ocean for last few millennia is something worth thinking about.
That’s what David Attenborough is saying when he says “Look!”
I moved from a childhood of seemingly endless beaches, woods and common land to a city giving me tunnel vision brought on by streets and man-made waterways. Every year more of that space between ground and sky is eaten by concrete. Okay, so maybe development isn’t something that will be paused in our lifetime. But, humans solve problems. We fix things, change them, and mould them to suit our needs. We can use that ability to create solutions to the impact an encroaching urban world has on other creatures and plants. We’ve already done that a little. Didn’t Singapore look beautiful?
All this BBC television programme with its millions of viewers is doing is begging you to keep that turtle trapped in a plastic cup at the back of your mind. After six weeks of immaculate documentary film-making the world should feel like a much more unusual and precious place. It isn’t so much about what we were shown but why we were shown it. Planet Earth II was a love letter to the planet from some of our greatest talents. But, to us watching it was a cry for help. They can’t keep this place safe on their own.
“Look! For the love of God, look!”
You can find more of Rhiannon’s writing here.