Writes Siobhán McCallum
If I were to tell myself from only a few years ago that the most affecting piece of drama I would see in 2021 would be the BBC’s ‘A Perfect Planet’, I would be entirely confused. How could a nature documentary be the best piece of television I had seen in years? How could a show relating the perfect balance of the Earth’s fragile ecosystems move me to tears? How could this series leave a lasting impression on my view of not only the natural world, but society itself? The answers to these questions are incredibly simple. Through stunning cinematography, exceptionally raw storytelling and an unceasing desire to educate on the tremendous responsibility that humans possess in caring for planet Earth, the BBC have crafted a poignant piece of art that seeks to rally the troops for the current war against climate change.
The series is simple enough in structure, but vast in scope. Told in five distinct, yet interconnected parts, the show focuses on the integral components of planet Earth; volcanoes, the sun, weather, the oceans and humans. The activities, patterns and behaviours of these factors are viewed in microscopic detail, showcasing the immense impact these elements have in structuring and maintaining the ecological world around us. The series was undoubtedly a labour of love. Filming began in 2016 and took place in a plethora of environments in over thirty different countries. The trials and tribulations of the show’s two-hundred strong crew are chronicled in small diary-like sequences at the end of every episode, offering fascinating insight into the arduous schedules and often dangerous conditions and activities involved in the production of a show of this calibre. As always the series is narrated with epic gravitas by Sir David Attenborough, a man so beloved and unparalleled in expertise, knowledge and passion his voice and very being have now become synonymous with the art of documentary filmmaking.
Each episode opens with a stunning image of the Earth suspended in a single sunbeam, evoking our distinctiveness and insignificance all at once. What follows is a breathtaking exploration of the beauty in the natural environments around us, from the glorious depths of the Pacific Ocean to the alien-like landscapes of the Gobi Desert. Along the way we encounter familiar and fascinating friends. Hot-pink flamingos begin our expedition in Tanzania’s blood red Lake Natron, the red crabs of Christmas Island undertake an epic pilgrimage to the shore, godzilla-like marine iguanas battle unrelenting currents in the Galapagos and gargantuan humpback whales hunt along Alaska’s gorgeous coast. The show thus provides a welcome escape for viewers in a year marked by lockdowns and isolation, and satiates our innate craving and desire for adventure, discovery and connection.
However, the series is not simply a rosy depiction of nature, as the devastating consequences of climate change are showcased throughout. Episode three narrows in on the issue of drought along the Zambezi river, as we observe the new challenges that face the various species who call this glorious body of water home. Carmine bee eaters hurry to build their nests in the banks of the river, safe from predators looming above and below. We are informed that over six thousand nests are constructed, as these striking birds prepare for their future. However, in a single devastating moment, the bone dry bank of the river collapses resulting in the total destruction of hundreds of nests. An entire generation is lost. This image of annihilation stayed with me for days. At night, when attempting to rest, the scene played over and over in my mind. It was almost impossible to hold back tears. Indeed, throughout its six hour runtime, the series subjects us to the horrors of what our senseless actions have wreaked on the natural world. Baby sea turtles are drowned in their nests by excessive rainfall, penguins face excruciating clashes with tidal power as storms become more prevalent and violent and habitat loss leaves numerous Amazonian species homeless and dying. Even in the final episode of the show the catastrophic impact of our fishing industry is put on full view. Blood, guts and gore cover humongous industrial ships as they trek across the oceans gobbling up any creature unfortunate enough to get trapped in their nets. Sharks, the ocean’s top predators, appear helpless and feeble in the face of human power.
In the final episode, dedicated solely to the human impact on climate, Attenborough labels us a ‘deadly’ force against the natural world. The opening of this finale depicts his earlier work as an ecologist, as he identifies climate change as the most important story of our time. In addition, conservationist Dr. Niall McCann, marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos and economist Jeremy Rifkin warn us about our culpability in this ecological disaster. They entreat us to wake up to the consequences of our actions, to come to terms with the fact that we are in danger of losing half of all species in less than eight decades and will have to confront social crises such as mass migration, famine and war as a result of this cataclysmic event. According to De Vos, and I know many will share this sentiment, the worst part of all this is that future generations will likely wonder why we didn’t do something sooner? When all the information was available, why did we do so little to turn the tide? Why did we watch the world burn?
Despite these dire warnings and visceral depictions of what the future holds if we fail to act against climate change, the show provides hope that there is yet one final chance for us to save ourselves and the planet we’ve come to know and love. The dedication of the series production team to represent the beauty of our world and the hard work conducted by activists around the globe to combat climate change, are inspiring examples of human endurance, resilience and pluck. The Great Green Wall is an ambitious attempt to halt the advancing Sahara desert in Africa. This reforestation effort across the width of the continent has already successfully planted over twelve million trees in Senegal. Spearheaded by the African Union, the results of this fantastic effort are already surfacing with community wells filling once again with vital water necessary for regional development. A similar and revolutionary idea is taking shape in the Amazon. With the help of indegenous peoples in the region, this project is seeking to create a new biodiverse jungle of over seventy million trees. It is estimated that an area of over thirty-thousand football fields of forest will be restored. Moreover, we hear from young activists and view reels of footage of recent protests led by school children around the world as they attempt to make their love for this planet, and their impatience with government inaction, known. It appears that the human species is unwilling to go down without a fight. Time may be against us, but the Earth is robust and capable of returning to its former glory with a little help from its most prominent inhabitants. As De Vos emphasises in the final moments of the show, we are incredibly intelligent creatures that have everything we require to take our past mistakes and turn them into a beautiful new beginning of harmony and equilibrium with the natural world.
One particular action project lingered in my mind long after the credits rolled. Attenborough reveals to us the pioneering work of zoos all over the world that are collecting DNA samples from the most endangered species on our planet. We enter into one of these ‘frozen zoos’, in San Diego, where unbelievably over ten-thousand distinct vertebrate species are housed in a single vault. There is something hauntingly beautiful in the imagery presented to us of these vast swaths of vials containing the genetic make-up of animals on the brink of extinction. Stored at exactly -200° celsius, these samples can stay viable indefinitely and are now most likely the best chance we have at saving these creatures. While this is undeniably a brilliant project that potentially holds the key to combating unsustainable extinction rates, it is horrifying to see the work of millions of years of evolution be reduced to this mechanical, lonely and unnatural place. Compared to the stunning representation of life on Earth throughout the series, this is a lame equivalent of the ecological prowess of this planet.
Having considered this show as a whole it becomes clear that the series is equal parts vital educational material and masterclass of cinematic storytelling. Unlike previous BBC nature docs, which often alluded to climate induced problems in various ecosystems, this show places climate change at the forefront of its narrative. After all, the title itself seeks to reinforce the ‘perfect’ nature of our world that is now in existential crisis at the hands of human behaviour. It is this centrality of the climate crisis within the show’s structure and messaging that makes it such essential viewing for modern audiences. It does more than just shock us into action with its emotive imagery, it fully immerses the viewer in the natural world. We watch in awe at the majestic behaviours of Earth’s greatest achievements, and are touched by the interspecies connectedness we share with every living being. ‘A Perfect Planet’ succeeds where so many other documentaries fail, it enacts a real change in the viewer, one which promotes a responsibility and willingness to care for our home as individuals and as a collective.
As a consequence of this, when I consider what lies ahead for the future of our planet, I am tentatively optimistic. As previously stated the series as a whole provides me with this confident attitude, but one sequence in particular stands out. In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, exists an exceptional species of fire ants. Faced with seasonal floods that jeopardise their survival, these amazing insects turn devastation into opportunity. As water levels rise and engulf their home, the fire ants band together and create, using their own bodies, a living raft to float on. The power of the collective is demonstrated with this herculean endeavor, as each ant does their part to protect each other, with nobody left behind. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between this triumphant action, and our current attempts to alleviate climate change. It will take all of us to survive the coming flood, but just like these ants, we can make a miracle happen. This is why this documentary is so essential right now. It truly is the perfect example of environmental activism done right. The warnings wring loud and clear, the apocalyptic images are felt, the challenge is laid at our feet. Ultimately, the series makes us respect the great cosmic role we play in the maintenance and protection of this perfect planet.