Cultures Film & TV

A perfect planet?

Illustrations by Alicia Hayden.

Despite being a longstanding fan of anything Attenborough, I have lately come to view the announcement of a new series with some trepidation. Gone are the days when the environmental stakes were a seabird covered in oil, or a dolphin choking on litter: we are now being warned of an urgent existential threat to life as we know it, and naturally, like many people, this fills me with fear, guilt, and a strong desire to look away.

If you’re like me, then I’m afraid to say the latest BBC series is no exception. Each of the first four episodes of A Perfect Planet devotes substantial attention to the climate crisis, with the fifth and final episode dedicated entirely to this subject, and bringing in three independent climate experts for a more serious, educational tone. It’s not just doom and gloom, though; the effect is not simply to terrify, but to provide detailed information and realistic hope.

Attenborough’s series with the BBC never fail to deliver stunning footage of the natural world. Since this often doesn’t come with an in-built narrative, one challenge in building a TV series seems to be finding some sort of ‘hook’, some way of organising the material so that it tells a fresh and original story. Many previous series organise themselves continent by continent, or ecosystem by ecosystem, but we’ve also had more unusual offerings in recent years- The Hunt, with its focus on predator-prey dynamics, and Dynasties, which zooms in on the family life of one species each episode. A Perfect Planet takes the opposite approach, zooming back out to look at the inorganic features that conspire to make our Goldilocks planet uniquely hospitable to life.

The Earth

With its shots of bubbling lava and swirling ocean currents, A Perfect Planet feels more elemental and big-picture than previous series. It gives a real sense of life’s fragility: each individual with its own place in a complex web that is highly dependent on precise living conditions. In this series, there is an emphasis on geological and evolutionary-ecological processes, and on deep time. We learn, for instance, about the predictable cycles by which islands form from magma beneath the Earth’s crust, and then are slowly eroded. The message is clear: the Earth is much, much bigger than us. These processes happened uninterrupted for long before anyone was here to observe them, and will continue long after we are gone.

Fans of the 2006 classic Planet Earth will recognise the familiar opening sequence of a sunrise viewed from space to the accompaniment of stirring orchestral music. This time, however, there’s a simple yet effective difference: we are looking at the Earth from further afar. Now, it is a lonely blue marble against a backdrop of vast darkness. This sequence alone is profoundly moving, and speaks volumes about the urgency of protecting the natural world.

And this urgency is unarguably the main takeaway of the series. It is made unavoidably clear to us that climate change is not an abstract future threat: it is happening now, it is affecting wildlife and humans now, and will continue to irreversibly escalate until we take decisive action to halt it.

The average global temperature has already increased by one degree. This may not sound like a lot, but represents a change which has not been seen in over ten millennia, and it has already begun to shake up our weather patterns, causing an increase in unusual events such as severe storms, droughts, and fires. The section on the effects of climate change in Southern Africa was particularly alarming, with increasingly hot and dry summers already altering the landscape and decimating swathes of animal populations.

A major theme throughout is the interdependence of all life, and its reliance on weather patterns that have remained predictable for thousands of years. Many species are finely adapted to make use of seasonal rains, or ocean currents, or migrations of prey species, and if those don’t come as expected then the whole system is thrown into disarray.

For instance, one episode begins in a lusciously forested corner of Zambia, where every October millions of bats arrive just in time for the regular rainstorms that cause a mass fruit ripening. For a brief window of time, clouds of bats darken the sky and hang thickly from tree branches. They gorge on hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fruit, and their droppings then distribute and propagate the seeds, maintaining the health of the forest until the next year, when the process begins again. The rain, the fruits, the bats, the forest: all rely on each other as part of a precisely choreographed cycle. This series shows again and again with examples like this that if changes to regular weather patterns break one link in the network, as we are already beginning to see, a whole chain of dominoes may collapse.

Snow Hare

Not only is biodiversity reliant upon predictable weather, but the reverse is also true: a stable climate depends on ecosystems remaining intact. Oceans, forests, and grasslands suck in carbon dioxide, prevent soil erosion, regulate rainfall, and much more, providing a powerful buffer against the worst effects of climate change. These ecosystems are complex networks in which each and every individual plays its own role. This means that we don’t have to worry only about preventing extinctions: the declines in the actual number of individuals we are seeing across many species are also cause for concern.

However, the interconnectedness of these problems is also a source of hope. It means that grassroots efforts to protect wildlife will have a positive impact across the world. In the final episode, we are introduced to several such local projects. In Manaus, Brazil, where “urban expansion is eating into the jungle”, a small team responds to residents’ alerts to safely trap sloths, jaguars, snakes, and other animals that have become stranded in streets and gardens, and return them to protected areas of forest. Each day they receive “four or five” calls, and they have made over 2,000 rescues in the last five years. At the New England aquarium in Massachusetts, no effort is spared in rehabilitating and repatriating the critically endangered sea turtles that wash up on nearby beaches in increasing numbers, after swimming further North due to changing ocean currents and then being caught out by sudden cold snaps. A cynic might say that going to great lengths to save the lives of individual animals is sentimental and indulgent. However, as one of the featured experts tells us, “we don’t protect animals just because they’re beautiful and interesting. They’re an integral part of a functioning planet, and we need to keep them around.” 

The interconnection between biodiversity and climate means individual things we do really can help. Every tree planted, every area protected or rewilded, every garden made friendlier to wildflowers, insects and birds: it’s not just an exercise in small-scale beautification, it helps in a larger way as well. Donating time or money to initiatives that do this is an action individuals can take against climate change. The other aspect of the solution we are shown in A Perfect Planet is green energy. We have the technology needed to move away from fossil fuels; all that’s missing is the political willpower to do what needs to be done, and to do it urgently.

Finally, it’s not just the novelty of the framing and the clear, nuanced messaging on the climate crisis that makes A Perfect Planet well worth watching. As usual, the BBC have produced an absolute cracker of a nature series. It goes without saying that the quality of the images is simply stunning, having incrementally increased with every series to date. If you have an HD TV, this is where you’ll get your money’s worth. The content itself is also highly original: a small sample of the world’s unimaginable multitudes of strange and wonderful things, skillfully captured and presented here for your viewing pleasure.

Desert Rain Frog

One favourite of mine was the rare bactrian camels of the Gobi desert, who have to contend not only with extreme dryness but also with temperatures that drop to 40 degrees below freezing- not what you’d normally associate with camels! These animals run cross-country for days when they detect the scent of their primary source of moisture: short-lived snow flurries that blow in from Siberia. In an exciting riff on the classic cheetah-gazelle paradigm that is the bread and butter of wildlife documentaries, we also see wolves hunting a herd of hundreds of Arctic hares, a drama lit by moonlight in a desolate polar winter where the sun hasn’t risen in months. And there’s more: gruesome vampire finches on a remote island of the Galapagos; the desert rain frog, as adorable as it is bizarre-looking, that lives beneath the sand and is “the size and shape of a marshmallow”; Amazonian fire ants that collectively form themselves into a living raft to spend weeks drifting over floodwaters, evocative of the opening sequence’s lonely Earth floating through space. Whoever you are, you can be sure there’s something in each episode that you have not only never seen, but never dreamed of.

There is more diversity, more strangeness, on this planet than any of us could see in a lifetime. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Let’s protect it. 

Ellen is a Dphil student interested in evolutionary theory. She writes on biological sciences and feminist issues.