It’s a curious thing to watch two penguins fight. As they swat their flippers at each other, their graceless bodies tip back and forth in a desperate bid to stay upright. It’s like a bar brawl between two of the stars of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, clawing each other with one hand and balancing a large glass of white wine in the other.
Leave it to David Attenborough and the team behind Dynasties, BBC One's new five-part documentary series, to find the dignity in one of nature’s punchlines, then. Every episode focuses on one species and its familial group, with “Emperor” following a waddle of Emperor Penguins as they perform one of the most complex and impressive examples of teamwork in the animal world.
And, thanks to the current trend of intense anthropomorphism in nature documentaries, these flightless blobs swiftly become survivalist heroes, forced to make the most impossible decisions out on the ice.
Every winter, Antarctica’s Atka Bay freezes over, providing a safe space for penguins to breed and raise their kin. They have nine months to do so, but must face endless hazards along the way: starvation, raging winds, blizzards, and temperatures below -60 C. A group of mothers, at one point, finds themselves trapped in a ravine, unable to carry their chicks up its slippery walls. Do they leave behind their own children in order to survive?
The episode – tilted “Emperor” – isn’t shy about romanticising its avian protagonists, making it clear that the only hope of survival for both the penguins and their chicks is in the power of the bonds between them, both as couples, committed for the year, and as a communal group. There is little time for comedy, outside of a brief note from Attenborough that “a penguin is beautifully designed for many things, but mating is not one of them”. Seconds later, a penguin, mid-thrust, rolls over and falls flat on his face.
More prominent, however, is the tragedy of the lives lost along the way, commemorated in quiet, mournful takes of frozen eggs and bodies. One pair of penguins faces a different kind of loss, as a mother whose own chick has died steals away their offspring. The camera pulls back from the parents, their heads rested against each other in grief, to reveal the villain of the piece, only a few paces away. It’s like a shot from a horror movie.
In fact, the episode is, in fact, something of cinematographer’s dream: the blues and pinks that speckle the sky as winter encroaches, before plunging this world into a sunless night that lasts six weeks. Once more, Attenborough’s work proves that there’s no animal out there that we can’t forge a sense of connection with.
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