There are few things of which Britain is a world-leading exporter these days. Marmalade, perhaps, or nostalgia. But above all else, this country is incontrovertibly the market’s premier provider of wildlife documentaries, from Blue Planet to Planet Earth, Dynasties to The Hunt. Now, the BBC is back with its latest colossal undertaking, Frozen Planet II, a five-episode series sifting through the snow and peering beneath the ice sheets of our vast glacial landscapes.
This new series opens with its narrator, Sir David Attenborough, speaking on camera about the urgency of its themes. It’s an alarming start: not just because of the perils of climate change, but because I’m so used to Attenborough being a disembodied voice. The point of portraying these frozen wastelands, he announces, is “to witness their wonders, while there is still time to save them”. It is a theme that will recur throughout the episode, from the calving of a giant iceberg in Greenland to a polar bear moping on a shrinking ice floe. When the first iteration of Frozen Planet was released in 2011, it confined discussion of imminent climatic disaster to its final episode – now, it will be a running theme throughout.
But these are wildlife documentaries, not TED talks, and they know what they do best. It’s not long before we’re in the midst of a flock of hardy emperor penguins, the only bird tough – or stupid – enough to breed during the Antarctic winter. Is there anything new to say about penguins? Not really – the action quickly moves to the choppy waters of the nearby ocean, where a pack of killer whales are stalking a seal. This sequence is shot, and scored, like a horror movie, the pod of whales cracking the ice in order to displace their blubbery quarry. This is what the BBC Natural History Unit does best: it showcases the savagery of the animal kingdom while being careful not to slip into an easy “protagonists versus antagonists” narrative.
“The bear instinctively kills every calf it can,” Attenborough announces solemnly, as we watch a grizzly bear flinging about the corpse of a newborn bison. “Only a few escape.” But while the brutal hunting sequences are electric, the series is uneven. As was also the issue with the latest season of the BBC’s Dynasties, when they’re not re-examining old favourites like penguins and polar bears, they have to cover slightly rubbish animals, like the Pallas’s cat or the musk ox, in order to tread new ground. Headline acts like the Siberian tiger, meanwhile, fail to deliver: we see the big cat, starving, stalking long-gone prey, but have to rely on reassurances from the voiceover that they’ll eventually find a meal, off camera.
As has often been the case, the most compelling part of this new Frozen Planet is the behind-the-scenes segment at the end. It focuses, in this first episode, on the drone team in Greenland, awaiting the break-off of mammoth pieces of ice. It’s a gruelling, frustrating process, but they eventually capture a massive calving event. “It’s so exciting, and you get the adrenalin,” is the verdict of the drone operator. “And then afterwards, there’s a bitter sweetness to it, as you realise that’s another piece of ice that’s slowly raising the sea level.” The sight of a helicopter next to this glacier, a tiny but noisy speck against the white, is a compelling symbol of the cognitive dissonance required in our changing world.
There is no doubt that the stark beauty of the frozen Earth has never been better captured. Filmmaking techniques involving “racer drones”, satellite imagery, and time-lapse cameras installed for three years create a legacy portrait of a world that may be gone in just a few decades. But for all the beauty, the thrill of seeing stories from the natural world is somewhat diminished here. Tigers and bears and whales and penguins: this feels more like a greatest hits compilation than a documentary that has something new, and pressing, to say.
The first episode of ‘Frozen Planet II’ will air on Sunday 11 September on BBC One at 8pm. Episodes will then be released on BBC iPlayer