Review: Planet Earth II

Russell Barnett reviews the first episodes of the BBC’s most watched nature documentary yet.

Photo: BBC/YouTube
Photo: BBC/YouTube

After a 10-year wait, the Planet Earth saga has returned to amaze us with dramatic stories of the animals and plants with which we share this world. The groundbreaking new series has a lot to live up to, with Attenborough himself calling it ‘unparalleled’, and so far it hasn’t disappointed.

Planet Earth II is the BBC Natural History Unit’s first blue chip ‘sequel’ and although it may appear that they simply ran out of new names for their series, keeping the well-known title of Planet Earth has succeeded in giving the production a platform of existing respect to build upon. The name is instantly associated with stunning images captured in the highest quality by the latest technology, and this has translated into outstanding press and social media coverage.

The first episode of the long-awaited series delved into the world of islands and can be summed up in three key concepts: intimacy, motion and drama.

First up is intimacy. Previous series have used long lenses to bring the viewer closer to the action, or drones and helicopters to give us a sense of scale. However, Planet Earth II puts the viewer directly in the environment by getting cameras as close to the animals as possible, creating a powerful new perspective. Hidden Kingdoms tried to achieve this with smaller species back in 2014 but was faced with harsh criticism that storylines were heavily manipulated and the overuse of CGI made the series ‘fake’. Luckily, the Natural History Unit seem to have got it spot on this time, managing to capture beautiful interactions with minimal added effects.

This technique works particularly well with island species as they are generally more approachable than their mainland relatives, due to the lack of predators. Whether this can be maintained for larger species that may not be as tolerant of someone sticking a lens in their face is another matter entirely. According to producer Mike Gunton this is where technology enters the picture, allowing filmmakers to capture more elusive species by setting remote cameras that record only when they sense motion. This approach is certainly groundbreaking and also highlights a huge shift in the way wildlife programmes are being made.

Next comes the use of motion. Whereas previous wildlife programmes would include a handful of moving sequences to set the scene or cleverly introduce the focal species, Planet Earth II holds nothing back in this department, with the majority of shots including some form of motion. In fact, camera movement is so prevalent that it actually enhances the power of some isolated still shots, such as the racer snake slowly creeping up on the infant iguana. The variable use of motion is a versatile technique that can either create intense energy or help relax the viewer.

Camera movement also adds to the earlier concept of intimacy, as it makes the viewer feel like they are walking amongst the animals rather than watching quietly from a distance. This has only been made possible by the rapid advancements in technology including the reduction in size and weight of cameras, along with the development of handheld gimbal stabilisers. With this continuing trend of hardware improvements, viewers should be prepared for a host of new filming techniques in the near future.

Finally, we come to drama. Perhaps the biggest feature of the first episode is the monumental use (and potential overuse) of drama in its storytelling. The script of Planet Earth II has lost much of the ecological information of its older predecessors and has become heavily story-orientated. This is a change that has been happening slowly over many years within blue chip productions but is much more apparent in this latest series, creating the perfect middle ground between drama and reality TV: a less annoying ‘Made in Chelsea’.

The subconscious knowledge that the stories depicted are actually being played out somewhere in the world makes the programme far more exciting than any fiction and encourages the viewer to have a greater respect for the planet’s biodiversity. If the Natural History Unit can pin down this winning formula and repeat it in future series, they may just be able to find the new direction they so desperately need in order to remain viable.

The verdict: an outstandingly produced piece of television that will invoke every single emotion within the space of an hour. Planet Earth II marks a new chapter in the history of wildlife productions that not all may welcome, but which will certainly secure the genre a place in the future of prime time television.