‘Planet Earth II’ is (not quite) the best thing ever

Oh man, did you see Planet Earth II? It was amazing! Nature is crazy, yeah? Woah! Did you see that bit with the little lizards? Maaate! And, like, ALL the snakes? Of course you saw it. Everyone did.

Planet Earth II is amazing, though. At the risk of saying something really obvious, the photography is unbelievable, and unlike anything I’ve seen in a nature documentary before. Virtually every sequence compels you to ask “but how did they film that?!” Even parts that didn’t seem especially dramatic or explosive – lemurs leaping through the trees in the first episode, for example, almost a throwaway link between other moments – were shot in such a way that seemed to involve either magic, or actually representing an indri’s mind on screen or something. How else could they show animals leaping through a densely forested area in such detail?

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This is an indri. They sound hilarious, find it on Youtube.

This is to say nothing of the moments that show genuinely exceptional animal behaviour you’re unlikely ever to see on TV again, let alone in life – a giraffe casually batting away a lion leaping up to attack it, an urban leopard snatching a piglet from right under its mother’s nose – as if the very idea of urban leopards and pigs, living in the middle of Mumbai and filmed in total darkness, isn’t enough. And yes, the bit with the just-hatched marine iguanas running to escape seemingly thousands of racer snakes is genuinely amazing. It will no doubt be remembered, along with the killer whales coming up onto the beach in The Trials of Life, and David Attenborough being playfully pulled about by gorillas in The Living Planet, as one of the greatest moments in a nature documentary ever.

The thing is, though, Planet Earth II isn’t really a nature documentary. Or, at least, it isn’t the David Attenborough documentary it (sort of) pretends to be.

Like most sensible people, I love David Attenborough more than many members of my own family. I can honestly say that his programmes are one of the major influences on the way I see the world. The reason his most famous programmes are so brilliant is largely because of him. His style of presenting, actually appearing on the screen, and speaking with a quiet but firm authority, is hardly ever seen on TV any more. Don’t worry, I’m not going to whinge about how every programme has to be presented by someone on a ‘journey’, so we have to put up with experts pretend to learn things at the same rate as the viewers, who are presumed to be idiots. Oops, looks like I did.

Anyway – the ‘Life series’ – Life on Earth, The Living Planet, Trials of Life, The Life of Mammals and so on (although, confusingly, not the programme called Life) – are all not only presented by Attenborough, but written by him too. The Planet series – Blue Planet, Planet Earth and so on – aren’t written by him. (He’s also not on the screen as much, but fair enough considering his age.) I think this is the major difference between the two series of programmes.

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I just wanted an excuse to use this picture.

The Life series, because of Attenborough’s presence, have the sense that you’re being taught something. Someone who knows a lot more than you tells you about some really interesting things. Moreover, there’s a reason you’re being told these things. (Which is why the clichéd impression of him, “And here, we see the male emerging from his cave…” is so wrong; he doesn’t just describe what you see on screen, he explains it.) Every episode of each series, and the series as a whole, have a point, an argument, or a narrative. Life on Earth, rather grandly, attempts to cover all the major groups of animals in the order of their evolutionary appearance; The Living Planet covers every habitat on Earth in a logical ‘journey’; The Trials of Life covers various animal species as they go through the major moments of life from birth through to producing their own offspring.

Planet Earth II, and all the Planet series, just show you a bunch of stuff. Look at this amazing lizard! OK now here’s an eagle. Woah, now a little mousy type thing! Fighting a scorpion! There’s no deeper reason why you’re being shown all these things, nothing ties them together except a vague theme like ‘Deserts.’ The emphasis is on spectacle, not the significance of why animals act in certain ways, or what these things might ‘mean’, or how they fit into the ecosystem as a whole. It’s just some animals that look weird, or animals doing exciting or weird things. Planet Earth II is not only a show for people who don’t really like nature documentaries, it’s a show for people who don’t really like nature. Or documentaries.

Which is fine, of course. It is a genuinely amazing programme, and why should it need to be anything more than that? Anyway, millions of people who would never usually give half a shit about animals or animal programmes have watched Planet Earth II and hey, isn’t it good that these people were interested in animals and thought about the world around them, even if only for a bit?

cheeky-sengis-make-debut-at-chester-zoo-12Here’s a sengi for no real reason other than LOOK AT HIS WIDDLE FACE.

I’m not sure it is innately good that people looked at some animals for a bit thanks to a TV programme. It’s extremely important that we think about animals as animals, recognising all animals (including humans) as living beings that exist in their own relationship with other living beings around them. I don’t mean this in any kind of sentimental way, and I’m not saying we should treat other animals like humans. I’m not even necessarily saying we shouldn’t eat animals or wear their skins or keep them as pets. I mean it is, in itself, ethically imperative to try to recognise animals as beings, just as we should with individual humans, because they are beings. All too often, we think of animals as merely existing to be used by us. This includes the idea that animals exist only for our entertainment – hence the fucking idiots who look at animals at the zoo and complain that “it’s not doing much, is it?” By just showing a bunch of animals doing a bunch of cool stuff, with no narrative or deeper reasoning as to why any of this stuff is important, I’d argue Planet Earth II falls into this category of viewing non-human animals as just entertainment for humans – or, at the most, metaphors for our own feelings or actions.

The episode that got nearest to a narrative or an argument was the final episode on animals living in cities. All the animals shown were had adapted to cities, displaying behaviours unknown in their counterparts in other habitats. Does this mean that non-human animals are, in general, a lot more adaptable or even intelligent than we thought? Does it show that the ever-expanding human population will eventually change all life on earth, destroying millions of species and forcing the rest to change their entire behaviour and psychology? Ah, who cares – let’s just end with some shots of Singapore, where there’s lots of plants in the city centre. Doesn’t it look nice? So, you see, we can bring the wild into the city… or something. “This city centre teams with life!” Attenborough reads from his script, not mentioning that that’s because there are loads of plants, put there by people, to cover the exhaust vents of a power generator of a goddam tourist attraction. I’ve been to Singapore’s Gardens By The Bay, and it’s amazing (and educational!), but it’s a purpose-built tourist attraction, not some wonderful example of a new way of living in harmony with nature.

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It does look cool though, doesn’t it?

As the conclusion of Planet Earth II’s argument – the end of the final episode – this is a huge cop-out when climate change and environmental catastrophe are only getting worse every year. The impulse that sees ‘the environment’ as something separate from ‘us’, and so not really worth worrying about, is completely linked to the impulse that sees animals as not worth thinking about in terms other than how exciting they might be for us. I think Planet Earth II propagates this view. Not by showing interesting animals, of course – that’s the entire reason of any TV programme, to be interesting – but by not having any explanation, context or reason why we should care other than it looks cool.

Am I saying that Planet Earth II, like virtually everything according to Theodor Adorno and Twitter, is fascist? Well, it’s certainly worth watching, spectacular in its technical wizardry and the behaviour and species the makers managed to capture. But probably, in the end, tiny bit fash. It’s no Trials of Life, at least.

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