Television Review

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The Independent Culture
The volcano rabbit, we learned from Survival (ITV), is "high on the list of the world's most endangered species". Without being unkind, it is likely that this is the only chart on which the volcano rabbit will ever be in the top 10, because it is a creature decidedly short on natural charisma. A small, drab animal with short rounded ears, it does what all rabbits do - nibbles grass, hops a bit and wiggles its nose - and, while that's quite cute enough for many people, you suspected that it only achieved top billing in "The Rabbit in the Moon" because the film-makers had been unable to find anything more arresting to act as star. It's true that it had the assistance of myth, always irresistible to natural history producers; the Aztecs apparently believed its outline could be seen on the moon (after a lot of cactus juice, I think), but even that couldn't conceal the fact that this was a landscape piece trying to pass itself off as a personality profile.

You can tell a habitat documentary because much of the voice-over consists of unconnected descriptive sentences, matching the inconsequential assembly of animals filmed ("A huge katydid, big as a peapod, warms itself in the sun." Next!). The camera roams around, collecting as much raw material as possible, and the result is then made into the television equivalent of one of those crowded encyclopedia illustrations in which all the inhabitants obligingly turn up for a kind of group photograph. But the instinct to add narrative appears to be almost irresistible. Given that you will almost certainly have secured footage of an animal looking mildly anxious, it will always be possible, for example, to include a moment of tension, in which the fruits of several weeks' filming are composed into a miniature drama of threat and escape ("It's just a pair of cross-bills stopping for a drink. The rabbits relax again and settle down for a wash").

Incredible Journeys (BBC1) is much more full-throated in its anthropomorphism, converting the reflex migratory instincts of various animals into a kind of bestial Odyssey. But to have an epic you must have a hero, which is presumably why the voice-over puts such a premium on picking out "our" individual from the nameless multitude depicted on screen. This amalgamation of many indistinguishable animals into one notionally identifiable one is a long-standing white lie in natural history film-making - which happily manufactures the continuity it could never conceivably capture for real. But the process came close to the point of absurdity with the subject of last night's film - the Monarch butterfly. Can a butterfly have a grandmother? I know they can in Larson cartoons, where they gather together to eat coffee cake and moan about all having to wear the same dress, but when the screen is filled with a blizzard of numberless insects, the insistence on family ties strikes you as particularly perverse.

Like Survival, Incredible Journeys included the traditional moment of hazard avoided - in this case with a set piece in which "our" Monarch was nearly mashed into the radiator grille of a passing juggernaut ("This was just a brush with death and she continues northwards"), though other bit- players succumbed to frog-assault and spider-attack. At one point, a spooky scarecrow was introduced to add a little frisson of menace, as if the butterflies had dropped into a horror movie on the way, and now had the jitters to contend with as well.

A sense of heroic individual fortitude is the inevitable result of all these little fibs; "our" butterfly, for example, having survived the long flight back from Toronto to Mexico, was knocked off the tree on which thousands of butterflies huddled for warmth. Would she succumb to ground frost or gourmandising mice? No, of course not - "our Monarch struggles over the grounded wings and, despite the odds, reaches the trees". And if she hadn't, of course, one of around a million body-doubles would have done the stunt for her.

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