In the BBC’s new David Attenborough series, a newborn seal pup – too young to swim – lies on the ice in Antarctica in a minus 40-degree blizzard. The mother does her best to shield it but, after three days, leaves it to take shelter underwater. When she reappears after the storm has passed, her offspring barks in relief. But across the ice lies the corpse of another abandoned seal pup. A pupsicle, if you will.
Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1) marks Attenborough’s return to the channel after a spring detour to the vast tundra of Netflix. The title may sound like a marketing motto dreamt up by the World Bank, but – focusing on a different continent each week – it otherwise bears the hallmarks of a suitably dazzling BBC/Attenborough operation. There are sweeping aerial shots, eye-wateringly clear close-ups and gaudy underwater scenes of starfish, sea spiders and somnolent jellyfish. There is sex and comedy and cuteness aplenty but, most of all, there is heartbreak and death.
Now the BBC Natural History Unit has decided to break with tradition by threading the environmental message through each episode, rather than sheepishly tacking it on the end, Attenborough isn’t messing about. We may be at “the most critical moment for life on earth since the continents formed”, our host notes gravely in his introduction, swathed in a cagoule on a windswept beach, his hair blowing skywards. “We are changing the world so rapidly that wildlife is now facing some of its greatest challenges yet.”
And so, along with dead seal pups, we see hungry gentoo penguins trying and failing to break through the slush caused by rapidly melting ice caps, allowing seals to pick them off like sashimi on a bed of ice. There’s the grey-headed albatross leaving its chick alone in the nest, only for a ferocious storm – increasingly a feature of life in this frozen wasteland – to blow it out of its cosy billet and on to the ground below. In one of the more appalling evolutionary glitches, adult albatrosses don’t recognise their young by sight, sound or smell – they rely on knowing where they left them. All of which means that while the returned mama albatross sits glumly on her empty nest, she takes no notice of the battered, mud-caked chick trying to clamber back up to her.
Elsewhere, in between footage of crotchety elephant seals thwacking jowls and hermaphrodite nudibranchs scouting for a mate, we hear about altered weather patterns, disintegrating glaciers and the hunting that has brought humpbacked whales perilously close to extinction. In the final on-location segment, a cameraman breaks down and cries after contemplating the future of a penguin colony he has been filming for 10 days.
Watching Seven Worlds, One Planet, it’s hard to know what to worry about most: the future of wildlife – catastrophically imperilled by our fondness for fossil fuels, long-haul travel and convenience food – or Attenborough himself, now 93 and one of the few people that the world will listen to about the impending apocalypse. Like the species on whose behalf he speaks, his continued existence is vital for us all.