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Dynasties: Episode 1 (David the Chimpanzee) - Review


Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

LOVE, betrayal, tenderness, brutality and triumph against adversity… the opening episode of Sir David Attenborough’s latest BBC nature documentary, Dynasties, had all of this and more.

There were times, when watching the stand-alone story unfold, where you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching an episode of an acclaimed HBO series such as Game of Thrones or Succession such was the emotional complexity at play.

But these weren’t people… they were chimpanzees. And this two years in the making episode followed a troop living in west Senegal, as they attempted to navigate a hot, dry summer under the leadership of king monkey David (appropriately named, we thought).

But while the opening moments of the episode captured nature at its most splendid, complete with heart-melting baby shots and scenes of chimps at play, there was darkness waiting in the wings.

For the alpha of the troop, David, times were about to get hard. Age had caught up with him and, as his females came into season, so too did the threat to his rule from rival chimps desperate to satisfy their own lust.

Things came to a terrible climax when the younger males ganged up against David and left him for dead after a night-time attack. His wounds were savage. His plight desperate.

Younger members of the troop were witnessed tending to his wounds, along with some of the females, before they had to leave his ailing side, too, in a six-mile trek to the nearest water. Viewers, meanwhile, held their breath.

But David, against all odds, pulled himself back from the brink. This was a Revenant style comeback. First, he ate, to muster the strength. And then he reunited with his troop, mindful of his injuries. A show of strength against his closest rival was enough to win back his alpha status.

But with wounds still gaping and strength still sapped, David was all too aware of the sustained threat of rebellion, particularly if another of his females came into season. So, in a masterful move, David began tending to fellow elder males. In doing so, he re-built loyalties and surrounded himself with bodyguards.

David’s status was not to be questioned again. When a female did come into season, it was David who successfully mated with her, unchallenged.

This remarkable story captivated from start to finish. As ever, the camera work was stunning, capturing beauty in one instant, pain in another. David’s injuries, when focused upon, were gasp inducing.

The drama was well paced, too. Once David had been attacked, the threat of death hung in the air like some Shakespearean tragedy waiting to unfold. It was a grand soap opera. And it was all the more striking for being real.

And while a ‘Hollywood’ ending, of sorts, was achieved for chimpanzee David, master conductor Sir David Attenborough and company still delivered something of a bittersweet finale. For while chimpanzees have managed to co-exist with humans for years, they are now listed as a critically endangered species because of the fact that their habitat is being destroyed by a new gold rush.

It was a sobering end to another stunning hour of television… and, once again, a salient reminder of the damage humans are inflicting upon the planet.

If the remaining episodes of Dynasties are as absorbing as this opening chapter, then we’re in for another Sunday night treat. But it’s important that we take note of the warnings being posted at the end of each episode, rather than just marvelling at a set of creatures that could soon be extinct.