Bruno Reynell reviews the epic new documentary series, narrated by David Attenborough
2016 saw the release of Planet Earth II, and this year it was Blue Planet’s turn to be given a sequel. Watching the now familiar title sequence of the Sun appearing into view, slowly illuminating the Earth, truly feels like the return of an old friend, and a sure sign of 60 minutes of quality entertainment unlike anything else on television.
Heading the series, once again, is David Attenborough. It is somewhat predictable to heap his narration with praise, but this is not done out of sentiment. As the face of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, there is absolutely no one better at doing what he does. His instantly recognisable voice is a national treasure in itself – all at once descriptive and emotive, exciting and excitable, it adds an authoritative (but never patronising) tone to the visuals.
That isn’t to say that the visuals aren’t spectacular in themselves. In each episode, a different aspect of the sea is presented in stunning fashion. Almost every scene has something remarkable to it, and so many of them will surely stick in the minds of the viewers, from vertically sleeping sperm whales resembling giant underwater tombstones, to giant trevallies leaping through the air to catch fledgling terns.
For me though, the highlight has to be the second episode entitled The Deep. It is often claimed that we know more about the surface of Mars than the deepest parts of our ocean, and the creatures and environments found there truly are otherworldly. In a tangle of tentacles and razor-sharp beaks, nightmarishly large Humboldt squid pulse around attacking each other (and the camera lens, in a heart-stopping moment), and a cutthroat eel wriggles and writhes as it goes into toxic shock having spent too long in a deep-sea brine lake.
These are sequences that might look more at home in a sci-fi horror film as opposed to a family friendly nature documentary. Being able to see parts of this other universe at the bottom of our oceans is both awe-inspiring and testament to the technical capacities of the team behind the programme.
It has been 16 years since the airing of the original Blue Planet, and technological advances have created new ways of observing aquatic life. The wonderful spherical deep-sea submersible used by the Blue Planet II team is the most obvious example of this. Into the Blue, the ‘making-of’ segment at the end of each episode, also gives viewers a glimpse into the enormous range of equipment and filming methods used. Allowing you to see how such incredible footage was captured, these ten minute insights make for great television in themselves.
Blue Planet II is not, however, a simple exploration and celebration of marine and oceanic life. There is also a distinct focus on the impact human beings have on these environments, with the last episode wholly dedicated to this subject. This aspect of the programme evokes sadness and anger; the scene showing a mourning pilot whale carrying around her dead calf, which has possibly been poisoned by her mother’s milk due to toxins from plastics, will linger long in everybody’s memory.
Despite wide acclaim, the programme has not been completely immune to criticism. Some, for example, have claimed that there should have been a more direct condemnation of huge polluters like fossil fuel companies, and an appeal for governments to take action. While this may be true to a certain extent, there is only so much one can complain about a show that does so much good. These documentaries do an incredible amount to elevate public interest in the natural world, as well as to raise awareness of our relationship with it. They are a credit to the BBC, and almost worth the TV licence alone; may they continue for many years to come.
Image Credit: Radio Times