Dynasties review: BBC's latest docuseries dramatises survival stories of five endangered wildlife species

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

Jun 19, 2019 13:41:42 IST

It is almost amusing that in all these years the watching experience of wildlife series has almost been the same: there's magnificent scenery of Mother Nature in its entirety, close encounters with the animal and plant kingdom and, of course, the quintessential background narration which became a signature of documentary shows telecast on Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

So, what is new with BBC's Dynasties? Essentially, it is the same format and ticks all the prerequisites set by its predecessors, yet the experience seems absolutely fresh. Loaded with extraordinarily beautiful shots of both the animals and their habitat, Dynasties takes one step inward into the realm of the wildlife kingdom — the intimate space of the animal families. From the multitudes of species of the fauna to zeroing in five distinct-yet-endangered animals, BBC's latest wildlife series narrows down its gaze on stories of families. This five-part episodic structure of the series brings to the fore what we know/have known of these species, and at the same time, a lot that we don't.

From David, a strong and determined leader who rules over his troop of 32 chimpanzees in Senegal, West Africa; Antarctica's emperor penguins; the mighty lioness Charm who leads the Marsh Pride of Kenya’s Masai Mara; Blacktip, the rebellious leader of a pack of 30 painted wolves from the Mana Pools in Northern Zimbabwe; to finally India's Raj Bhera, a protective mother tigress from the Bandhavgarh Forest Reserve — each of these characters speak volumes of their species and yet are almost eerily relatable to most of us.

Dynasties review: BBCs latest docuseries dramatises survival stories of five endangered wildlife species

Stills from BBC's Dynasties.

Dynasties' personification of these species doesn't confine to giving them human names but also being able to document their lives in the most contemporary manner. If one were to close their eyes and listen to the just the audio of this series, one might almost mistake it as a show based on five human characters. That's the USP of this BBC series and it consequentially stands apart from anything that we have watched so far. And the cherry on the cake is the comforting and whispery background narration by Sir David Attenborough himself.

In one of the interviews with BBC in 2018, Attenborough had said, "Animals also deserve a space on this planet. We are latecomers, the animals were there before us. We should be taking care of them, making allowances for them and giving them space."

In the series, from the get-go, we are transported to the animal families which are no less than microcosms of their species. So, when we watch an episode, for instance, of the emperor penguins, we get to observe a bunch of things: where the species exists, what are the challenges they face in the present context, what are the rules of the game of 'survival of the fittest', what are the dynamics between several members of the community, and lastly how do they take on the obstacles that come their way in order to ensure their dynasty, their bloodline survives.

While the latter part of the above sentence seems to be the prime focus of the series, one will realise that regardless of their geographical positions all these animals are hardwired to fight for their survival, till the very end. For them, it is part of their life like anything else they do in order to survive on the face of this planet. Seasons change, food gets scarce, members of the pack die — they continue to move on with their lives.

Amid all these commonalities within these species, each of them has their own journey — which Dynasties captures magically. The camera and narration shifts focus from collective entities to individuals and vice versa, almost seamlessly. That leads to a perfect juxtaposition of challenges and survival strategies of a community vis-a-vis that of an individual, and this is what brings in the element of drama in the otherwise documentary approach to storytelling. So, for those who are not familiar with the rules within the animal kingdom and more particularly within certain species, Dynasties is an eye-opener. And for those who are better informed, it becomes a chance to learn more.

Of the five episodes, we were given access to two episodes featuring the lions and the painted wolves. Both are stories of matriarchs — of their pride and pack respectively — who leave no stone unturned to ensure their community thrives and sustains through thick and thin. But how do they do it in their individual capacity is what makes their journeys so riveting. These are stories of two ferocious mothers and team leaders who walk on a tight rope to strike a fine balance between these two roles almost every day.

Picture Shows: Alan, Charm's youngest son, was always one of the greediest in the pride. Cleared for Brand use - Level A-B.

Picture Shows: Alan, Charm's youngest son, was always one of the greediest in the pride.

Charm, the lioness, is hailed as "the most powerful leader" in the history of the Marsh Pride of Kenya's Masai Mara. Attenborough begins the episode with a startling fact where he mentions that lions, despite being at the top of the food chain, are facing an existential threat; their numbers have reduced to almost half. With this information at hand, we the viewer begin to root for the lioness from the very first moment. Charm and her cousin Sienna are the only two adults in the pride who have been denounced by all the nearby alpha males, thus putting the dynasty's future in question. And, with the first hunting sequence, we see the champion in Charm and why she is so instrumental in keeping the pride's strength. She hunts round the clock to ensure the young ones are well nourished. In one of the sequences when Sienna gets badly injured and doesn't return for a while, the entire onus of the pride falls upon Charm and she stands a firm ground. With hyenas and other lions looming around, the safety of the young ones in the pride is always at risk but Charm tackles all of it head on and somehow figures out a way.

With almost every challenge coming her way, Charm manages to grasp the attention of the viewers and make them cheer for her. Attenborough mentions how the BBC team took two years to follow and document Charm and her pride. With a lot of wide landscape shots of Masai Mara and the animals which graze and prey on it, interspersed with close-up shots of these lions, one is able to imagine what it takes to survive in the wild. In the episode, Charm associates herself with the audience in such a way that one can relate to her predicaments, sacrifices, dilemmas and choices. The developing bond between her and her daughter Ya Ya is endearing — often reminiscent of many mother-daughter relationships that we see around us. From accompanying her mother in the hunts to protecting the pride's bloodline, Ya Ya stands beside her mother, also giving an indication that she is prepping to take her mother's position when the time comes.

As opposed to Charm and Ya Ya's tale, the story of the mother-daughter painted wolves Tait and Blacktip is as edgy as it can get. While the lionesses were each other's support system, here Tait and Blacktip are rivals. Tait's pack is attacked in an ambush by Blacktip and her pack of 30 wolves and, as a result, the former is forced to retreat from their habitat. They are left with no option but to take refuge in the hostile neighbouring land occupied by lions. Blacktip and her pack continue chasing them and marking their new territory. In the process, one of her pups is attacked and killed by a group of hyenas, another dragged into the water by a crocodile. And all the while, the ferocious Blacktip is just a spectator and unable to turn the tables. There's a moment when her pack is attacked by a pride of lions. But the moment one anticipates another tragic death in her pride, a buffalo comes to rescue and shoos away the lions. No doubt, the rules of the wild are strange and unpredictable!

In an interview with The Telegraph, the director of the episode Nick Lyon said that the relationship between Tait and Blacktip felt "Shakespearian in its scale and in the intensity of the rivalry." He described how he, along with his team, followed the wolves driving 82,000 km by car to ensure no key moment remained uncaptured. He, in fact, threw up watching the crocodile grab one of Blacktip's pups and kill it. "When you follow animals for as long as we did, you get to know them and care what happens to them," he told The Telegraph.

Along with the fear of the predators around, there is also the soaring temperatures (up to 50 degrees Celsius) which weaken Blacktip's pack. All these blows finally make her take the decision of going back to their original territory, for sustaining the pack's future is the ultimate goal. With the onset of monsoons, the rivalry of the daughter and mother ends. While Blacktip gives birth to a new litter of ten puppies and starts afresh in her territory, Tait and her alpha male chose to stay in the pride lands and eventually die. Tait's youngest daughter Tammy is chosen as the new leader of the pack and she gives birth to seven puppies thereby also strengthening the number of Tait's pack.

Picture Shows: Blacktip's youngsters swell the ranks of her pack. Suddenly Blacktip’s pack outnumbered Tait’s, allowing her to drive her mother out. (In the same year that Tammy was the only survivor of Tait's litter, 10 of Blacktip's puppies survived. Cleared for Brand use - Level A-B.

Picture Shows: Blacktip's youngsters swell the ranks of her pack. Suddenly Blacktip’s pack outnumbered Tait’s, allowing her to drive her mother out. (In the same year that Tammy was the only survivor of Tait's litter, 10 of Blacktip's puppies survived.)

In the episode, one also gets a glimpse of how a pack of painted wolves function: How taking care of the pack is pivotal, especially when someone is injured or weak (the pups, for instance); how the alpha male and female dominate the reproductive rights in a pack; how the pups are given the first and major share of the hunt. The episode is undoubtedly one of the bloodiest and brutal episodes of the series, thus also making it one of the most engaging in terms of the overall effect. The use of the camera (4K ultrazoom cameras, drones, etc) plays a pivotal part in the filming and make for some of the best wildlife cinematography ever on TV or film. The background music composed by Benji Merrison and Will Slater accentuate the visuals to another level. What Dynasties definitely leaves the viewer with is the realisation and understanding of the urgent need to conserve these species for the future.

Dynasties airs in India from 17 June, Monday to Friday at 9 pm, on Sony BBC Earth.

Updated Date: Jun 19, 2019 13:59:05 IST