Sunday night, cocktail in hand, I prepared myself for an anticipated 3 hours of glorious nature footage. The flash website, the advertisement at the top of this very webpage, and Peter Etnoyer managed to bolster my fervor for Planet Earth. Less than a year ago, at the Deep-Sea Biology Symposium, BBC representatives revealed a few of the excerpts from the series-a shark engulfing a sea lion, ispods swarming a food fall, and birds of paradise in stunning displays of mating ritual. Three hours later, I added this to my ongoing list of anticlimactic experiences. At least the cocktail(s) were respectable. This morning, I hesitated to write something. Have I merely become desensitized to the awe of nature? By having a front row seat to extraordinary deep-sea animals and habitats, have I forever ruined myself on nature programs that inspired me in my youth? Is it time to hang up my stocking hat?
This morning, I caught PZ’s post and realized that I am not the only disappointed person with Planet Earth. Why did the BBC series fail to captivate me? In honesty, this is not a BBC specific problem and transcends all nature programs whether National Geographic, Discovery, or Mutual of Omaha (do they still make these?). The problem is that the series was essentially more of the same. The old formulas were used and unfortunately you already know the formulas.
- To eat and to be eaten…Most nature documentary segments consist of animal A eating animal B. So far the Planet Earth series appears to be 75% predator/prey interactions. Most often these scene plays out with either a canine or feline chasing after an Artiodactyl. Of course its the ‘weakest’ or youngest of the ‘herd’. For “diversity” there is always the obligatory shark feeding frenzy or a hawk eating an innocent chick. What about other behaviors: altruism, reproduction, courtship, communication, cleaning/grooming, nesting, etc.? What I want to see is steamy hot barnacle sex! If we need to stick with the predator/prey relationship I want to see a velvet worm squirting sticky slime from their oral tubes!
- Charismatic megafauna…All nature documentaries appear to employ an equation. If species A possesses a backbone and is larger than a 10 pounds, we must film it. The time on camera for species A is directly proportional to its weight and phylogenetic distance from invertebrates. How many times do I have to see elephants, tigers, sharks, whales, baboons, sea lions, seals, penguins, hyenas, some deer-like creatures, rays, leopards, and bears? 97% of all species are invertebrates and I would venture that 90% of these are far bellow 10lbs. Who is going to speak out for the Sipuncula, champion the Ctenophores, riot for the Rotifera, assemble for the Acanthocephala, and parade for the Phoronids? Enough of the alliteration for now.
- Charismatic places…You can bet money that a nature documentary is going to feature a coral reef, the African savannah, a tropical rainforest, or some pack ice. As other habitats are equally threatened and importance to showcase these to garner support for their preservation. What about temperate old growth forest, chaparral, montane grasslands, mangroves, ponds, tree holes, mosses, decaying logs, mountain streams, marshes, swamps, rocky subtidal, brine lakes, seagrass, vernal pools, and flotsam? When I taught introductory biology, I always have students observe a drop of pond water under a microscope. Many are in awe at the biodiversity in this ubiquitous but neglected habitat.
- The struggle of life…The good old survival of the fittest. The good, the bad, and the dead. Nature is a fickle bitch and something has to die. Is this theme always necessary? In Planet Earth, we are witness to the elephant calf separated from it’s mother in a dust storm. The calf alone follows its mother’s path in the wrong direction, away from water and maternal love. I’m sorry but this just doesn’t register with me, and probably others, anymore. We know the probability that everything dies eventually goes to 100% and that it will not be a tranquil passing. Let’s move on.
- The average human pays attention for only…PZ states it best when he noted that…
It’s a show for people with short attention spans. We got brief vignettes of a few minutes–you’d just be getting into the pumas and alpacas in Patagonia, and zip, we’re off to grizzly bears in the Rockies. It was popcorn biology, crunch crunch crunch, you’ve snarfed down a whole bag a few kernels at a time.
Essentially, ‘themes’ are disjointed at best. Perhaps, the current paradigm of nature documentaries is stream of consciousness. Hey look at this cool thing…hey now look at this cool thing…did you see the cool thing it did? Often what is lacking is any revelations into why or how questions. I don’t buy the reasoning that the audience will not be interested if you provide content. We’ve been trained to think reefs, savannahs, and rainforests are the most magnificent. It is time to reprogram the nature audience automaton.
- The paradox of Lucas…BBC fell headlong into the same pit that Lucas fell into with the newest Star Wars, too much reliance on technology. An equal amount of money and time should be spent on developing the story as technology. Neglect of one will lead to ultimate failure of the whole project. BBC relied some spectacular footage to carry the whole series and it is exceptional. Yet much like my high school girlfriend, the original visual admiration quickly disintegrates to reveal a lack of content. All a nature show needs is a helicopter, a tranquilizer gun, a net, and a film crew. Just like Mutual of Omaha.