BBC’s Frozen Planet – big budget YouTube?

Adelie penguin

"I preferred 'Life on Earth' actually..."

Anyone who enjoys wildlife documentaries has to clear a space in their diary for a new BBC series – especially if it features the patron saint of the natural world, David Attenborough. And Frozen Planet is one big budget, time-lapse-photography-and-sweeping-helicopter-shot-filled extravaganza.

I’ve been oohing and aahing my way through the first two episodes, but watching last night’s made me realise that sometimes wildlife documentaries are really just high-concept versions of those ‘cute animals doing stupid things’ videos you get on YouTube. Now in my opinion that is no bad thing – I can watch baby penguins falling off things for hours – but I have to admit it made me miss the glory days of Life on Earth, one of the best TV series I have ever seen. 

Yesterday’s episode featured a penguin stealing rocks from a rather stupid neighbour, some baby polar bears showing off in the snow and falling over, and a baby albatross attempting to fly but failing miserably and crash-landing into a pool of mud. This was all accompanied by jaunty music that reminded me of old Disney movies.

Admittedly there was some really amazing stuff too, like the caterpillars who live for 14 years before they turn into moths, freezing solid every winter and somehow surviving the ordeal. And there were some beautiful narwhals (they really are awesome – but sometimes foul-mouthed).

But it did feel a little bit like a very expensive showreel of cute animals – we didn’t learn very much about the bears, penguins or albatrosses that nature film aficionados wouldn’t know already. Channel 4’s ‘Inside Nature’s Giants‘ series, on the other hand, was full of amazing facts and real ‘wow’ moments – where else can you see a small lady grappling with a prehensile whale penis?

I think there is a place for the BBC’s beautifully shot but slightly information-lite documentaries. It’s true that we can’t really appreciate the wonders of the natural world unless we see them for ourselves, and films like this take us to places that most of us will never go. The awe-inspiring feeling that one incredible shot can give you perhaps counts for more than any dry fact.

But at the same time, I think nature films are the doorway to a lifetime’s appreciation of science and nature. I remember watching Life on Earth on VHS when I was quite small, and I was completely blown away by the things I saw. It’s one of the biggest ‘wow’ moments I’ve ever had, realising just how beautiful and complex and amazing living organisms could be. I think most people who own a TV must have seen the sequence where David gets groomed by a gorilla – it’s funny, but most importantly it shows you a new view of the world. It’s suddenly obvious that gorillas, and by extension many other animals, are really not so different from us after all.

With this reputation to uphold, a huge budget, prime time, internationally repeated nature film by the BBC seems like a bit of a waste if it doesn’t push its viewers and expect a bit more from them than an appreciation of cute penguins. People have an enormous appetite for learning about nature, and the BBC should be giving them high-nutrient meals to feast on rather than fast-food snacks.

I’m sure this series will have its moments of real wonder, and I’m looking forward to them already. Episode 7 promises to cover the effects of climate change on the polar regions – this really is what public service broadcasting is all about. I’m sure science teachers all over the world are setting their recorders already.

But any of you nerds out there who are thirsting for more – delve into the BBC archives for some truly ambitious programmes. The camera shots may not be quite as slick, but you’ll be amazed all over again by how wonderful our world can be, especially with David Attenborough for a guide.

2 Responses to “BBC’s Frozen Planet – big budget YouTube?”

  1. Hayley - sciencesightseeingandsustenance Says:

    I do like the more in depth science but I’m amazed how many people with normally no interest in science/the natural world have been commenting on Frozen Planet – it’s nice to see that interest. Of course in my mind its all about Sir David 🙂 so I’m gutted to be missing this series. I always put blue planet etc on in the background when I’m working – there’s just something about these BBC docs combined with his voice that does a very good job of reawakening the wonder that led me in to science. I was seriously lucky to see his lecture and get to talk to him this year (, he’s very inspirational.

  2. The strange and beautiful science of decay on BBC4 « The Science Bit Says:

    […] few weeks ago I had a moan about how the BBC’s flagship nature series Frozen Planet struck me as being a bit content-light. […]

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