BBC Earth’s A Perfect Planet is beautiful, but not quite perfect

2020 did not contain what is usually the BBC Natural History Unit’s yearly blue-chip release, because 2020 sucked at pretty much everything. (Except at launching Secret Base. Obviously.) Instead we had to wait until early 2021 to get A Perfect Planet, which released in full on January 4th.

Despite its worryingly Panglossian name, I had high hopes. Obviously, A Perfect Planet would be an absolute masterpiece of wildlife cinematography, since it’s a BBC Earth production, but it also seemed to promise a new direction for these big documentaries, which have drifted away from more serious scientific storytelling into the realm of the shiny shiny.

This was meant to be something new:

A Perfect Planet is a unique fusion of blue chip natural history and earth science that explains how our living planet operates. This five-part series will show how the forces of nature drive, shape and support Earth’s great diversity of wildlife. The first four episodes explore the power of volcanoes, sunlight, weather and oceans.

It was pretty easy to see a blurb like that and get carried away. What would a documentary that treated the interconnecting systems of life on Earth look like? Could we get a through-line from, say, plate tectonics to oceanography to astronomy to biochemistry to explain the rich feeding grounds of the Humboldt current? Might we get a detailed look at the evidence that life emerged at undersea volcanic vents? Might photosynthesis be explored in something like full?

The answer to all of these questions turns out to be “no”. A Perfect Planet takes its supposed premise, tosses most of it away and uses the remainder as an excuse to stitch together a bunch of shiny shinies. Not that I’m averse to shiny shinies. Some of the shinies are shiny indeed — take, for instance, this shot:

Flamingo chicks leave dust trails in the dry lakebed

BBC Earth

This is from the first sequence of Volcanos, and shows the flamingo crêche at Lake Natron, in Tanzania. It’s an astonishingly cool (and sometimes brutal) look at the nesting habits of the lesser flamingo, which relies on the volcanic lake to breed. But while the flamingos are new and welcome, vulcanism is peripheral.

The second episode is more of the same. The Sun opens with a look at the fig wasp, which is a zoological celebrity that has never been properly filmed before. The BBC Earth team manages it, giving us an extraordinary look at the symbiotic relationship between the planet’s weirdest flower and its tiny wasp pals. What does this have to do with the actual sun? The sun ripens figs. (Duh.)

Here’s another example from that episode:

Arctic wolves attempting to hunt in a swarm of hares

BBC Earth

A) I had no idea that arctic hares existed in such riotous abundance, B) this is a beautiful shot in its own right and C) in motion really gives an idea of the benefits of herding behavior in the face of predation. Presented with a blurry cavalcade of hares, the wolves simply cannot pick out a target, and are forced to give up the hunt.

What does this have to do with the sun? Fuck if I know.

Instead of living up to its full potential, A Perfect Planet is a pastiche of scenes only vaguely aligned with the episode’s concepts. Sure, we get a couple nice shots of volcanoes, and a brief overview of the moon’s effect on the tides, but these are all peripheral to what the show wants to be, which is the same collection of shinies we’ve been watching since the first Planet Earth.

A Perfect Planet is also … weirdly horny, even for a nature show. I am absolutely never going to get over Sir David Attenborough saying “his aim is to deposit a packet of sperm inside her mouth,” and I doubt anyone else will either. There’s also rock-climbing snake orgy, and bits of the aforementioned fig wasp sequence are so unsettlingly perverse I hesitate to commit them to writing.

Ultimately, A Perfect Planet is worth watching. There’s some stuff in here I’ve never seen before (the vampire finches!), and most of the familiar sequences benefit from significant improvements in cinematography and definition. Also I’m a sucker for gannet hunting scenes, and we get one of those, so I feel bad for complaining.

But still, given what was promised, the result isn’t as perfect as it ought to be.

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