Planet Earth II review: BBC's wildlife documentary series deftly juggles scale and substance
When the British broadcasting giant BBC commissions the sequel to one of the grandest documentary series, with the "Grandfather of Natural History" David Attenborough's iconic voice and the larger-than-life music composer Hans Zimmer's score serenading the background, the product is bound to be of galactic proportions.
But Planet Earth II, while acknowledging and celebrating the vastness of the blue planet, is aware of the minor niche it occupies in the larger scheme of things. Therefore, while the makers ensure that the sequel retains the unparalleled scale of the inaugural series, they also ensure that the narrative is as much about the inhabitants as it is about the planet.
Here, by inhabitants, I do not imply humans. There is no trace of the homo sapiens throughout the show, barring Attenborough's introduction in a hot air balloon at the start, to the behind-the-scenes Planet Earth Diaries footage at the conclusion of the first episode. By inhabitants, I refer to the zoology, which seem like they roam about rather freely but are in fact, buoyed down by multiple constraints, just like their human counterparts.
While the overview of Planet Earth II certainly takes into account the enormousness of the macrocosm, it uses a micro lens to document the life and times of a few exotic species that are found in the remotest corners of the surface. Its narrative may superficially revolve around the boundless wonders that Earth offers, but its essence really is in the individual/community narratives of the animals.
The first episode, that takes a closer look at the biome of islands, not only boasts of in-depth scientific research and a daring explorer's spirit but also rides on a high emotional quotient. Without getting into the nitty-gritties of science, the episode commendably focuses on how animals feel the dire need to mate, bond and grow with each other.
The most popular clip of the first episode, which has already won a BAFTA for the Best TV Moment of the Year, is the chase sequence involving a pit of racer snakes and a baby marine iguana. While that brilliantly shot dramatic chase is a perfect encapsulation of the survival instinct that animals are born with, it is not entirely representative of the first episode.
The premiere episode, though geographically located around islands, is metaphorically about bridging all the seas between them. It is not as much about conflict, food chains and the Darwinian survival of the fittest theory as it is about the need and want of animals to stay close to the fellow members of their species.
While there is a sequence of two giant-sized marine iguanas wrestling it out, what is at stake is not territorial supremacy or the little food left on the deserted island. No, marine iguanas are cold-blooded animals who can survive on their reserve for days. The winning prize is the right to mate a female iguana who returns the favour only seasonally.
Similarly, the episode starts with a solitary sloth on Escudo Island who is literally the odd one out as he, unlike every other sloth on the planet, does not have a female partner. But then a distant call-out by a female sloth brings momentary hope. What follows is a swift advancement towards the female — swift by a sloth's standards mind you!
Similarly, there is a lonely male albatross waiting for his mating partner in the midst of his la familia making the most of the breeding season. Unlike every year, the female albatross has not arrived on time on the island that these birds migrate to during their breeding season. As Sir Attenborough's desolation-laced voice puts it, "Three thousand birds on the island but he is only looking for one."
Besides these deeply human actions of fighting, waiting and advancing (in sloth-high speed) in order to make love, the first episode ends with the animals' (or birds') need to stick together as a familial unit.
An ocean of penguins have made a volcano island their home. It provides them just the right amount of warmth they need to deal with the unforgiving cold that the ocean subjects them to. But much of their warmth comes from their insurmountable will to live in solidarity.
Constantly attacked by the harsh weather, the volatile volcanoes, the ferocious ocean and the opportunistic vultures, the penguins go about their daily routines rather clinically. As a female penguin protects her two chicks from prying vultures, the male penguin embarks on a daunting journey to obtain food from the untameable ocean surface and then walk for miles to reach his family.
But you will be amazed, amused and inspired to watch Mr Penguin surf through the rising waves, wear a bloodied chest with unassuming pride and stumble on a rock, only to redeem himself a microsecond later. He approaches his family, shooes the unsuspecting vulture away, feeds his chicks and exchanges greetings (through interesting neck movements and crass cries) with his wife, before it is the lady of the house's time to embark on the same journey.
All these instances contribute to the overall theme of Planet Earth II, about Darwinian theories not being the be-all-and-end-all of the nature's rule book. While there is a fare share of gore, desperation and tussle, there is also an overwhelming account of companionship, conjugal, familial and communal.
This series is also technically several notches higher owing to the 4K technology. The stability of cameras allows the viewers to follow animals linearly and the extensive use of drones provide stunning aerial establishing shots. But the narrative steals the show in Planet Earth II, as the show rather than reminding you of the grave issue of environmental exhaustiveness, also makes you realise the importance of a collective sense of being as long as the Earth is there for one's disposal.
Planet Earth II is the sequel to the 2006 documentary series Planet Earth that aired on BBC One in 2006. It is a five-part series that will premiere in India on Sony BBC Earth on Monday.