Planet Earth

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 2 reviews.

tl;dr: Visually and audibly stunning; season one pushed the boundaries so much it still feels relevant, whilst season two presented a more intimate and mature version of the natural world. Arguably the gold standard in nature documentaries.

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Season One

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Whilst seemingly everyone on the planet has become enraptured by marine iguanas battling snakes, we remain in our self-enforced BBC purgatory. Unable to ignore the hype surrounding season two of Planet Earth I managed to track down the full first season on Bluray for the cost of a Gregg's pasty!

Overall, the original series has held up pretty damn well, exactly as I had expected. With a more modern eye (and TV) it is clear where the filming suddenly slides out of the jaw-dropping HD filmography, especially during intense action sequences, but whether in 1080p or 480p the quality and skill of the film work remains exceptional. Sure, the producers get a bit carried away with the heli-pan shots, often reusing particular sequences in multiple episodes, but those slow pan-outs from several miles away were utterly groundbreaking at the time and, honestly, have few rivals even today.

In fact my greatest surprise was seeing how many revolutionary tricks Planet Earth packed in. Whilst the series became famous for the helicopter-mounted camerawork, it also pioneered stunning slow-motion sequences, underwater shots and use of satellite imagery, much of which remains on par with more recent examples.

Production value and filmography aside, it hardly needs mentioning that the voice narration provided by David Attenborough is just as brilliant as ever. There are some re-used sequences and phrasing here as well and, watching them back-to-back, certain terminology gets a little grating – not everything needs to be the "xest in the world", David, especially when you contradict yourself between episodes! Still, paired with an exceptional soundtrack and audio-scaping, you can't really fault very much about Planet Earth. It truly may be the greatest documentary series ever produced.

One quick aside, however, is that the Bluray experience was less than, shall we say, enthralling. I have a love/hate relationship with the medium anyway, but convincing our media PC to play the discs was arduous and still resulted in stuttering or skipping issues, seemingly due to decryption problems rather than disc faults. Plus, for what should have been the deluxe, all-singing-all-dancing version of the franchise, the special edition set actually lacks the small featurettes that originally aired after each episode and for which Planet Earth was, once again, a pioneer. I had hoped they would all be sandwiched onto the extras disc at the end but nope. Instead, two additional documentaries were provided, but ultimately the aired behind-the-scenes features were what I wanted. Maybe they're on the discs somewhere but, if so, they're buried deep! Frankly, that just seems a bit stingy. As such, the Bluray gets a 3/5...

Season Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Before I begin, I have a confession to make: I haven't really watched the whole of Planet Earth II. We managed to miss the first three episodes re-airing on iPlayer, so this review can only be considered to cover episodes 4, 5 and 6 (Deserts, Grasslands and Cities respectively), plus any clips uploaded to YouTube.

With that said, my feelings of what I have seen are mixed. The footage is as exceptional as ever, with some jaw-dropping sequences. They've definitely moved away from the obvious gimmicks, losing the hyper-zoom shots, overhead shadow walking and underwater footage that made the original series so famous. In their place is slow motion and hyperrealism; you can tell the break out technologies of the past few years have been stupidly high resolutions and frame rates. Certainly, elongating the time that certain shots take is stunningly done; footage isn't slowed down to an imperceptible crawl but rather feels like it got a little close to a black hole. It draws you in to the frame and somehow makes even relatively banal sequences tense or atmospheric. It's a more mature approach to editing, for the most part, but I do feel that the understatement does mean some of the awe is lost. There's a lot more nuance on display, but much less eye candy. The HDR sequences do go some way to alleviating that and I can imagine in 4K you will still end up awestruck quite often, but it did feel a little less exciting in general.

Part of that, though, may well have been the familiarity of many of the sequences. Rather oddly, Planet Earth II appears to actually reuse footage from Planet Earth. Certainly, if the chase sequences of wolves and caribou are new footage they can be considered shot-for-shot remakes, just with a tweaked ending where the caribou escapes. There are other, similar moments, but amongst them emerges another trend: baby animals don't seem to die as much as they used to. In the three episodes we watched there were some definitely savage moments (the lion with a face full of buffalo, tigers ripping into a days old rhino carcass, mustangs slamming into one another) but a lot of the hunt sequences seemed to end in escape. About the only animals I saw die were pigeons.

That is, except for the baby turtles, which was an extremely poignant but slightly off-putting piece of documentary work. I understand the need to make a statement, and perhaps that is exactly what they were doing, but I genuinely find it hard to believe that dedicated wildlife journalists could simply film endangered species being run over or drown. I understand the whole "nature is long in tooth and claw" mantra, but these aren't natural deaths. They're the result of human ignorance and arrogance, so a human intervention doesn't break any kind of conservationist's code – it's an obvious and necessary solution. Perhaps this was happening off-camera, and perhaps they felt mentioning it would do more harm in the long run, but considering how little media impact that sequence appears to have had I'm not sure a gamble of that nature has paid off.

I do have another theory though regarding the lack of death: Americans. For a BBC series, the baffling use of Fahrenheit is a pretty big giveaway that the American market was being heavily targeted. I have to admit to being a little disappointed, both in the BBC and in Attenborough himself, for allowing something so disingenuous to happen. It would be one thing if they redubbed the episodes for the US, but to air them in the UK using such antiquated terminology sends the wrong message. In a show that does a fantastic job of presenting strong arguments for human progression, taking a step back on something so basic just seems odd.

Despite these misgivings, Planet Earth II is still a wonderful masterclass in documentary making. I would have loved to have spent less time re-treading ground already covered by the series, but the entirely new footage that was provided was exceptional. Everyone knows about the Galapagos racer snakes by now, but the footage of sand grouse in the Namib, urban leopard hunts, harvest mice and serval hunting are all some of the cleverest and most intimate sequences I've seen captured on film. Intimacy was clearly a driving factor for the way the series was both filmed and edited, with a lot more emphasis on close up shots rather than grandiose displays of scale. I think that, more than anything else, built up to create one of the best episodes of any wildlife documentary in the final Cities feature. So yes, Planet Earth II has its flaws; so did the original. But these are almost entirely eclipsed by its triumphs.

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