No one does natural history quite like the BBC, and the second instalment of the Planet Earth series, already screened by the ABC in Australia, raises the standard another notch. The six episodes in this double DVD set take the viewer from polar ice caps to the jungles of the Amazon and New Guinea to explore another tiny fraction of the planet’s natural wonders.
As ever, it’s the camera work (and David Attenborough’s enthusiastic narration) that sets the series apart from its rivals. The film is astonishing, and the techniques used to present it are an impressive bonus. In the space of little more than an hour the viewer can go into low-Earth orbit to watch time-lapse photography of winter ice forming in Antarctica (doubling the size of the continent in a few weeks) and visit the jungle floor to see an ant gruesomely expire from infection by a species of the Cordyceps fungus.
The third episode, “Jungles”, heads to remote New Guinea rainforest to film the courtship rituals of three species of birds of paradise. Local counsel is sought, three hides are built, and the wait begins. To secure footage of the first – the six-plumed bird of paradise – the cameraman maintains a vigil in his hide up to nine hours a day for five weeks. “And the other two species were hardly easier to film,” says a clearly appreciative David Attenborough.
To film the epic annual breeding cycle of the emperor penguin the crew spends a year in Antarctica. Then they head to the other end of the globe to watch polar bear cubs take their first steps. The most poignant sequence on either disc is of a starved adult polar bear making a last-ditch bid for a meal with an ambitious attack on a herd of enormous and gruff walrus.
There’s six hours of this – six 50-minute episodes plus a 10-minute ‘making-of’ piece at the end of each, and although the emphasis is more on the art of the presentation than the science (in the case of the polar bears, for example, there’s no discussion of population changes with time, of movement patterns or details of how climate change has affected their feeding habits) it’s difficult to imagine how better one might spend the paltry purchase price. Sit back and enjoy the ride.