Spy in the Snow review: BBC special deftly combines voyeuristic entertainment and education on animal behaviour
Spy in the Snow is produced and directed by John Downer, known for nature shows like Spy in the Wild and Penguins: Spy in the Huddle.
Nature documentaries can often be a big yawn. But Spy in the Snow is quite the opposite. The show is a one-off special along the lines of BBC’s Penguins: Spy in the Huddle (2013) and Spy in the Wild series (2017), which gives viewers the best of voyeuristic footage of animals in their homes.
The concept is clever as hidden cameras are fit in animatronic doppelgängers that the animals are quick to regard as one of their own and then go about their business as usual. Narrated by David Tennant, Spy in the Snow aims to give a 360-degree view of what it is like to be born and survive in places like the harsh, icy landscapes of Alaska, New Zealand and Antarctica. It features not just goofy penguins but also pudgy sea otters, Bennett’s wallabies and polar bears.
The show opens to a mother sea otter slowly readying her pup for survival in the wild. An otter spy cam watches on as the mother hunts for food, loses her pup after he wanders off to an adventure of his own for which she has to conduct a frantic search-and-rescue mission. That's not all, a bald eagle spy cam is deployed to give a bird's eye view of the otters' courtship ritual. You will find yourself rooting for mama otter as she tries to ward off a male keen to mate, who also tries to kidnap her pup. After a long winter, comes spring and we see the pup prepare for independence.
Tennant takes the audience through the inherent need of emperor penguins to parent and how they cover long distances just to find food for their chicks. It's delightful to watch the penguins waddle through snow, give up and instead toboggan their way home. Owing to high levels of parental hormones, these penguins will fight over chicks or even adopt a blob of snow as their baby substitute.
Meanwhile, the spy wallaby planted in Tasmania blends in and earns acceptance from its fellow marsupials. The robot is so hyper-realistic that a young male wallaby even tries to court it.
The show then moves its focus on polar bears. A mama bear spots the intruder cam, laying untouched for weeks in the snow. She examines it, tumbles it around and even (by pure accident) gets the camera angle right.
Producer and director John Downer's Spy in the Snow leaves you marvelling not just at the unparalleled magnificence of nature but also the rapid rate of technological advancement. For fans of the earlier series, this special may not be as satisfying. Although neither Spy in the Snow nor its predecessors have been shot entirely with spy cams, the show has unearthed never-before-seen animal behaviour. With Tennant's narration, there is not a single moment of boredom. The special is a deftly wrapped package of entertainment and education, which leaves you wanting more.
Spy in The Snow premiered on 13 October as part of the Earth Special line up on Sony BBC Earth.
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