Planet Earth’s reputation very much precedes itself - the voice of David Attenborough is instantly recognisable amongst even the most casual of documentary fans. For many of those reading this article, Planet Earth may have been the first nature documentary to truly immerse them, as it was certainly one of mine. But what makes Planet Earth so memorable, and does it endure scrutiny even after 12 years?
Rather than the whole series, I’m going to be putting the most popular episode, ‘From Pole to Pole’, under a microscope. As openings go, this is short and sweet, and its simplicity definitely kept me watching, as I was promised vast landscapes and wildlife and I wanted to see more.
As promised, we are first bounced between the most extreme points on earth, between the Antarctic and the high Arctic. As many viewers were, I was hooked by Attenborough’s clear passion for this series, as it seems he marvels at each creature the series covers. The mother polar bear and her cubs we are shown tenderly introduce us to a world of the most extreme conditions, as we feel as vulnerable as these cubs as they struggle their way across the tundra in search of food.
I was then enchanted in an altogether different fashion soon after, greeted by an endless herd of caribou. The sense of scale I then realised this series brought reasserted itself. We see both enormous herds such as these caribou, and their predators, as we are kept in suspense in a chase between a young caribou and a wolf. It seems Attenborough himself does not know the outcome. It is here that another aspect of the series shines, its refusal to sugar-coat nature. It is not afraid to keep the camera on this young caribou as it is hunted and caught by the wolf, undoubtedly to its death as we see the wolf’s jaws close around it.
Much of the remaining runtime of the episode is dedicated to tracing the path of water around the world, rising from the sea, all the way to the Himalayas, descending to African plains where we see herds travelling from across the country to drink. Again, both the scale and brutality of nature is encompassed here, as the viewer is now shown the exploits of African hunting dogs, strategically hunting impala, with bird’s eye angles that reinforce the sense of urgency and closeness of the chase. I was particularly impressed by the construction of a kind of story, despite the chaotic nature of filming wildlife, as I was somehow invested in the wanderings of a herd of elephants, in search of water. It is truly impressive and an entirely unfamiliar kind of filmmaking to me.
Creatively written and masterfully shot, Planet Earth clearly holds up today, even against modern documentaries. Finally, there is a timelessness that Attenborough brings to the series that draws in the viewer every time.