Planet Earth

Writing in yesterday’s Times, A A Gill put his finger on a problem that has been bothering me about the BBC’s latest wildlife extravaganza – Planet Earth. For a science programme, it has very little science in it.

The factual content is now virtually nil, just scene-setting and needless telling you what you’re seeing. There was barely any attempt to differentiate between North and South Poles. Who cared? And the observation becomes ever more disengaged from a human-sized reality. The camera angles get higher and wider, giving an omnipotent view, and the sentimentally grandiose music is beyond bearing, like the overblown accompaniment to a silent movie or Tchaikovsky orchestrating cartoons. The wildlife itself is sentimentalised, anthropomorphised and edited into a cute narrative in a way I thought we’d all grown out of with Disney in the 1950s.

The explaination he comes up with is all very worrying

But mostly what I mind is the hidden hand of American culture and scientific social censorship. Like most big BBC nature series, this was a co-production with the Discovery channel, which has a long and weird set of requirements for its products: very little violence, no blood, hardly any sex and very, very hazy, noncommittal science, especially where it may contentiously upset fundamental Christians. Essentially what it wants is pretty, unnatural nature for 10-year-old, conservative Midwestern creationists. Now, I understand that this sort of programme is eye-wateringly expensive, and getting other broadcasters to share the expense makes bottom-line sense. But the BBC is not a commercial company: your licence fee is being used to subsidise American commercial television, and it’s being made to their specifications.

As regular readers will know, I’m a great fan of the BBC. And their wildlife programmes are usually the best in the world. But really don’t want to watch science programs with all the science taken out so that it doesn’t offend looney creationists in the US.


  1. I find many so-called documentaries these days fairly devoid of any actual content. I hadn’t thought of this “keeping the christian fundamentalists happy” argument, but it is pretty compelling.I think there are simpler explanations too – schoolkids these days don’t learn as much science as I did, and so just couldn’t keep up with a proper factual based program. The ‘MTV’ generation want fancy pictures, and can only handle one or two main facts per program.I blame the dumbing down of the schools curriculum.

  2. Say what? We must be watching a different series then. There’s been plenty of death throughout the series, some of it no doubt absolutely wrenching for sensitive souls. I can think of the coastal waters episode where there are repeated sequencies of great whites devouring seals, similarly I can think of the lions killing the elephant, the wolves isolating and devouring a solitary antelope etc etc etc.As for the sex, there have been shots of that, enough to serve the narrative trying to be told. Why on earth though scenes would need to be lomger than a few sequences is a mystery to me. Maybe staying with a sequence of animal copulation from beginning to end excites and enthuses Mr Gill but it would bore me fairly quickly.Planet Earth fits nicely in with a host of other BBC nature series and while some of those programmes examines sex, death, science or conversation in differing qualities, as a whole they hang together very well. It seems to me that the brief of Planet Earth is to tell the natural story of the planet as a whole, therefore necessarily being greater in breadth than in depth and though the disadvantage of doing that is a loss of detail the big advantage is to providing a compelling narrative of the diversity of the planet eco-system as a whole and drawing a whole new generation fo viewers into sympathy for wildlife as a whole.I don’t agree that the series has been dumbed down, anthromorphised and americanised either. Watch any National Geographic nature special or watch Happy Feet or Madcasgar to really understand what santinised, pro-evangelical Amercian fare really looks like (hideous). David Attinboroughs voice-overs have been the complete opposite of this smaltzy fare.Finally there has been some silly criticism levelled at the series that it does not focus on the environmental problems affecting most of the endangered animals featured, overlooking the fact that the final three “Future of Planet Earth” episodes in the series are addressing those very problems. In addition some of the stories in the series underline the climate change problem in a manner that really hits home with the viewer. In particular I am thinking fo the Polar Bear that swims itslef to death looking for ice bergs that have prematurely melted because of climate change leading to a situation where it weakly and unsuccessfully attacks a seal colony before dying of exhaustion and hunger. That underlines the impact of climate change more than any number of flow charts or stressed hippies grinding their teeth.These programmes all have different functions to fulfil and Planet Earth is doing a magnificant job of fulfilling it’s brief.

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