Helmed by David Attenborough’s narration, and featuring ground-breaking footage and research, Planet Earth II represents the pinnacle of nature documentary and what public service broadcasting can hope to be. Its predecessor, Planet Earth, redefined nature documentary back in 2006. As well as offering footage which was unparalleled in technical prowess (it was the first BBC nature documentary to be filmed in HD), beauty and scope, it also gave brilliant attention to the specific. What Planet Earth offered was a uniquely intimate look into the private life of animals; it was broad, but a balance was also struck between struck and a very human look at the experience of individuals. In a very real way it defined the how most nature documentary would be made after it aired.
Ten years on, with the arrival of Planet Earth II, the show has maintained both the ethos and rigour that gained Planet Earth the respect it now holds. The question could be asked about why this series has been named Planet Earth II, not just the second season of Planet Earth. What the show represents is, however, not just an iteration but an evolution of what it was that Planet Earth set out to do; it makes sense then that it would be billed as a distinct sequel, not just a continuation. The intermediate years have brought technological advances which have furthered what the camera operators and producers are capable of achieving. Aerial shots from drones feature in almost every segment of the show and provide a perspective which previously may have required a helicopter to achieve. Similarly, developments in gyroscopic cameras facilitate the use of up close handheld filming. Nowhere is the advancement more clear than the quality of image. The original was filmed in HD before most people had access to an HD television, but Planet Earth II has been filmed in 4K before the BBC even has the facility to broadcast such high resolution, guaranteeing the longevity of the programme far into the future.
Aside from its technical achievement. Planet Earth II holds some of the best edited dramatic sequences you can find, not just in documentary, but on TV full stop at the moment. Months of footage have to be distilled down to short clips. Somehow, without having the luxury of time, the struggles or aims of the featured plants and animals are brought into very real tension, or frustration, or tragedy. Without exception the clips appeal to our emotions, not in a way which is reductive or sensationalistic, but in such a way which brings our connection to nature to the forefront.
Of course, in 2016 it is not possible to make such a broad and ambitious nature documentary without acknowledging the ways in which humans directly affect our world. It is fitting then that the final episode of Planet Earth II looks inwards, towards the ecosystems that have begun to appear within our cities. Moreover, the show never lets its viewers forget about the damage to the ecosystems and livelihoods of plants and animals that is caused by climate change and other types of human interference.
In this way Planet Earth II goes beyond what might be expected of this kind of documentary. Not only is it captivating and entertaining, but it is also a rigorously delivered reminder of what nature has to offer, and what might be lost if we neglect it any longer.