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Seven Worlds, One Planet: Episode 1 (Antarctica) - Review

Seven Worlds, One Planet

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

IT’S a damning indictment of the uncertain times in which we live that where once nature documentaries existed to celebrate nature and deliver astonishing images from around the world, now they have to combine this feat with warnings about climate change.

Hence, David Attenborough’s latest offering, Seven Worlds, One Planet, is as sad as it is beautiful, combining moments of awe-inducing spectacle with harrowing reality.

Each episode of the new series will be devoted to one of the seven worlds of the title. This opening chapter unfolded in and around Antarctica, one of the coldest, most extreme places on the planet. And one of its most crucial.

With the ice melting at a faster rate than ever before in history, the threat posed by global warming to Antarctica has widespread repercussions for the rest of the planet as a whole, with sea levels rising. It also brings more imminent challenges for those creatures forced to live in its immediate wake.

And so to the harrowing parts of this programme and, in particular, the albatross birds, whose survival odds look grim. They are a species on the point of extinction. Why? Because they are singularly unable to adapt to the challenges posed by severe weather events.

This was shockingly portrayed in the plight of a baby albatross, initially shown bonding with its mother with the most gentle of beak tapping. But once mother and father had left in search of the food needed to satisfy the chick’s increasingly hungry demands, the baby was left to fend for itself against the full force of Mother Nature. And as a particularly vicious storm blew in, so the chick was blown from its nest.

Somewhat incredibly, the chick was still lying outside of the nest, chirping for help, when its mother returned. But a peculiar trait in the albatross meant that it was unable to recognise its call, or look down and recognise it by sight.

Hence, the baby’s only chance of survival was to haul itself back into the nest, which it did. But the effort to do so was agonising. My seven-year-old son had to look away.

And with the lifeless bodies of other, less fortunate albatross babies littered around this one plucky survivor, the harsh reality of the albatross plight had been laid bare for all to see.

There were other examples of climate change hindering survival prospects, as images of penguins being pursued across fractured ice fields by leopard seals proved. The threat of change on a catastrophic level never seemed far away and, indeed, was etched across the face of one camera-man during the behind-the-scenes section of the programme as he wept tears at the prospect of losing such a vital, beautiful habitat (he was stood amid sparring elephant seals and baby penguins).

Yet while certainly sobering in a lot of places, there was also room for optimism and for beauty.

The former was encapsulated in the section devoted to the southern right whales, so named because they had been hunted to the point of extinction by whalers who dubbed them ‘right’ because they were so easy to kill, given their friendly, inquisitive nature.

These beasts of the seas, which dwarfed the humpbacks, have rallied since the ban on commercial whaling adhered to by every country except Japan, Norway and Iceland (a nice bit of naming and shaming). Hence, where once there were just 35 remaining females, the right whale population is now 2,000.

If this provided a life-affirming statistic and an element of hope that mankind might, just might, learn and heed warnings, then the spectacle provided added impetus for us to do so.

Visual highlights included humpback whales blowing walls of bubbles to help capture krill into banquet-sized feasts, or killer whales chasing penguins in some dazzling aerial shots. True, there was a harsh end for the lively penguin, but the footage was undeniably spectacular… much like the surprising footage of sea anemones catching a jellyfish (something I never expected to witness).

As ever with these BBC event series, the spectacle was delivered in spades. There was seldom a shot wasted. Antarctica may be a brutal, punishing place to live for those creatures who choose to call it home, but there is so much beauty too, right down to a baby penguin playing with a fluff ball and creating a stir among its fellow brown-feathered friends. There was a majesty to its pantomime elements.

But it brought a smile, too. A reassurance that this planet is worth fighting to save. And a reassurance that in spite of the warnings now inherent in such programmes, nature can provide the biggest form of entertainment of any visual medium (from high drama to slapstick comedy, tragedy to triumph, love and death). This first episode had it all and more besides. It is already a series of unparalleled importance.

Seven Worlds, One Planet airs on BBC1 on Sunday nights from 6.15pm.