Last month it was Ricky Gervais, now David Attenborough joins the list of BBC figureheads who have been tapped up by Netflix. Television is not well prepared for a post-Attenborough world. In most other fields a successor would have been nominated years ago and invited to share duties, stand-in while the main man was on holiday, and generally lay the groundwork for the inevitable future. Instead we just carry on as if the great presenter, amazingly now 92, might outlive the world he is so worried about.
He narrates Our Planet, an eight-part bells-and-whistles documentary series and the first of his programmes to be exclusively online. It opens on a shot of the moon, with the Earth appearing gradually over its grey horizon. Since Neil Armstrong took his first lunar steps in 1969, Attenborough explains, the human population has doubled. The global wildlife population has fallen by 60 per cent in the same period.
The comparison feels pertinent: as a BBC producer, Attenborough oversaw the coverage of the moon landings. His career has coincided with remarkable levels of destruction and growth. From an industrial standpoint, the human effect on the climate is one of our most impressive feats. The climate is massive, and yet the concerted efforts of a small number of people have wreaked true havoc in less than a hundred years.
The broad idea behind the series is to convey the variety of life on Earth and the threats it faces, which is suitably vague. There is a “what we can do to help” element, to help soften the blow of the diagnosis, and Attenborough is keen to point out that some animal populations, especially insects and fish, are able to recover quickly given the right protection.
As a general rule the grander the ambition of nature documentaries, the flimsier their pretexts. It is clear that Netflix, with wallets like the Gutenberg Bible, sees Our Planet as an excuse to show all the cool footage they can get their hands on. Over the course of the first 45 minute episode we see cormorants dive-bombing for anchovies off the coast of Peru, flamingoes settling on drenched salt flats, hunting dogs tracking wildebeest in the Serengeti, male orchid bees having pollen sacks placed on their back by cunning plants in the rainforest, male manakin birds backflipping to woo mates, caribou evading wolves in snow-clad forests, polar bears stalking across the icecaps.
The footage is glorious, especially the side-on tracking shots of the birds and the hunting, where it is as if the cameramen were able to set up a rail along the ocean. Most spectacular of all is the sequence of a glacier collapsing into the ocean, where 75m tons of ice being sloughed off in less than 20-minutes. But at times Our Planet feels a little unfocused. Attenborough’s last big BBC series, Dynasties, won almost unbearable amount of emotional resonance through its focus on animal families. Our Planet is more of a greatest-hits parade, with overblown orchestral soundtrack and ponderous intonation. You can’t buy love, even if you pay for David Attenborough.
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