God’s-Eye View: Planet Earth (…and Rupert Bear)

The Sunday Herald March 4, 2006

News started rumbling last week about a hike in tensions between Angola, Botswana and Namibia, the counties that hunker around the vast inland delta in north-western Botswana known as the Okavango Basin. Each summer, rains washing down from Angola cause the area to flood, transforming what would otherwise be part of the Kalahari Desert into a lush, unlikely swamp paradise. Since time out of mind, this annual flood has been the vital event for the region and the people who live there; without it, the delta would simply disappear, sucked dry by the Kalahari. But all three countries have claims on the water system and now, having been hit by several droughts over the past decade – almost certainly the result of climate change – Namibia wants to build a pipeline to siphon off water from the Kavango River, the Okavango’s main supply, effectively draining the Basin. It’s the kind of situation wars are made of.

This political backdrop goes unmentioned during the first episode of Planet Earth, the BBC’s enormous new natural history series, although Okavango takes a starring role. The delta is the final destination of a truly epic trek undertaken each year by a host of species, including buffalo, impala (wild hunting dogs loping behind them, grinning darkly), and a majestic herd of elephants, hundreds strong. For a spell, the programme puts us there, alongside them.

Okavango comes later, though, as the programme sweeps mysteriously from pole to pole. First come calm, staggering shots from space, the sun cresting our fragile blue planet, and a voice: “This series will show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen it before.”

The narration belongs to David Attenborough, and if he says you are going to see wildlife like you have never seen it before, then that’s what you are going to see.

To underline the point, the programme cuts immediately to a flock of migrating birds that seems a continent in size. To cap this, we move to the Arctic Circle to watch something small that no one has ever seen; a mother polar bear, emerging from hibernation with two new-born cubs. She has to teach them how to walk and get them all to her feeding ground before the ice thaws. But first, she takes time to simply throw herself skidding down the slope, because it feels good. Smaller still: deep in the forests of New Guinea, bizarre birds of paradise seem to change shape and species in previously private displays, as absurd as they are unearthly beautiful. It’s full of this stuff.

The BBC’s natural history unit is like nature itself. It creates the most remarkable and wonderful things, and we take them for granted, forget to notice how incredible they are or wonder how they were ever made at all. Notes and press accompanying the new series stress the breakthroughs in technique and technology it represents, significant among them the development of a new type of aerial photography system which stabilises the shake that afflicted long-range camera work in the past. Basically, eliminating vibration in a high-powered lens means a camera-helicopter can hover much higher than before, high enough that the wildlife is unaware of it, yet still capture shots of extraordinary detail.

How that works onscreen is something else. Soaring implacably along over these animals, their delight, their desperate hunts and flights, this high-definition digital image is at serenely detached yet alive to every detail. The term “god’s-eye view” seems almost terribly apt.

It’s the elephants you will never forget. Huge heads down, scoured and blinded by unrelenting sandstorms, they patiently cross the Kalahari each year for the certain waters of Okavango. In one sandstorm, a small calf is lost, separated from its mother. When the storm passes, it finds her trail and starts following her footsteps – but in the wrong direction, heading backwards, back out into the bleak desert. As the camera pulls back, the lost little animal becomes a tiny speck, wandering slow and alone into an enormous and utter desolation. It’s an image of the most wretchedly sad power, one I am sure I will never shake out of my head.

Then we cut to the rest of the herd, arriving at Okavango, throwing themselves finally, delightedly into the water, drinking, washing, swimming, playing. Shot from above, and from underwater, where those trunks of legs are dancing, the pictures radiate rare and pure joy. But around this sequence, around the whole series, looms the unmentioned crisis, the elephant in all our rooms. Attenborough doesn’t comment on it. But if things keep going the way they are, one year, soon, the elephants aren’t going to find any water at Okavango, just more grey desert. The ice that those polar bears depend on is breaking up faster and faster. The beauty on display is heartbreaking, literally, because it’s impossible to shake the suspicion that Planet Earth should really be called The Way We Were.


Planet Earth, Part II
(published in The Sunday Herald November 5, 2006)

Could it really be that Sir David Attenborough and Sir Nicholas Stern made a secret pact to launch a co-ordinated assault on the remaining climate-change sceptics? Well, no. It just feels like they did – because nothing could complement the unveiling of The Stern Report more powerfully than the return of Planet Earth. First Stern goes for the head, laying out the economic costs of the looming crisis. Then Attenborough follows through with a one-two to the heart and the guts, showing us everything we’re about to lose.

When the first half of the BBC’s monumental natural history series went out, in March, it drew two main criticisms. The first was that, once you got past the visuals, there wasn’t much to the programme; it was, the gag went, “The World’s Most Expensive Screensaver.” To this, it must be said that, unless you’re so jaded you’ve lost the eyes to see, those visuals really do take some getting past. Not only is this a contender for the most miraculously beautiful series ever filmed, the pin-sharp clarity of the image actually makes your TV set look better than it is, like someone snuck in and upgraded you to HD. (Watching it on a real HD set must be like taking acid.)

Admittedly, as it floats serenely from mountaintop to ocean bed, from bat guano to swimming elephants, Planet Earth can seem uneven and arbitrary. But there’s something fittingly mysterious about that drift, and when you bear in mind its remit – which, basically, is everything– the amount of information it does communicate is staggering. Tonight’s episode, devoted to the ice-worlds of the poles, succeeds in condensing the epic struggle of male emperor penguins to breed in the teeth of the Antarctic winter that was the subject of The March of the Penguins into just a few, densely affecting minutes, without losing any drama.

The other criticism, however, was harder to refute. The very first episode of Planet Earth made great play out of its never-seen-before shots of polar bear cubs taking their first steps, and deservedly. Where the programme fell down, though, was in electing not to mention that the Arctic ice fields they depend upon are melting away. The spectre of climate change hung over the series like a layer of greenhouse gases no one wanted to acknowledge, even though it had direct bearing on everything the programme showed us.

Well, things have changed a little. Those polar bear cubs are back tonight. But then we cut to the real, tragic, star: a full-grown polar bear searching for his first meal in months. However, his hunting ground has disappeared, forcing him into desperate measures as he embarks on a titanic swim in search of land. The God’s-eye-view shots of his great white body powering elegantly through endless black waters are sublimely beautiful, yet wretchedly sad, because there is just no land in sight.

Attenborough’s narration doesn’t bang on about climate change, because it doesn’t need to. The pictures tell the story. Planet Earth has never shied from showing nature in the raw, but there’s a subtle new grimness. It can still kill you with cute (the sandhill crane chicks!) but even that has a melancholy edge. When we finally return to those polar bear cubs, they are no longer cubs, but adults, leaving each other for the last time to fend for themselves. But by now we know the lonely story that awaits them. As the camera zooms back and back and back from their shrinking white world, it feels like the last time anyone will ever see them.

More bad news, bear-lovers. They’ve revamped Rupert Bear for a new animated series. When did we decide stuff for children had to look so terrible? The Rupert I always knew was drawn and written by Alfred Bestall, who took over from, and outdid, the character’s creator Mary Tourtel in 1935, and kept at it until he retired in 1973, aged 90. Bestall’s illustration had a simple, otherworldly magic, yet was seriously weird (especially that freaky little evil twig-creature), a reserved British equivalent to Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo. Well, gone is beautiful illustration, gone mystery and strangeness. Instead, the obligatory, cruddy, plastic-looking CGI. He still wears a red jumper and yellow checked scarf (and, God save us, new white trainers) but this isn’t Rupert. When Bestall drew Nutwood, he based it on the landscapes of Snowdonia. This airless new series looks the work of people who have never seen a tree. Which, Planet Earth reminds us, is maybe fitting for tomorrow’s children after all.