The Social Catharsis of Planet Earth II
A tradition has formed among my friends over the last few years: the morning after a night out, with the sun up but the shades drawn tight, we wake up to a BBC nature documentary.
I was not particularly surprised when another friend mentioned they shared the same routine on foggy Sunday mornings. It seems an almost obvious choice, if only because of the soothing narration. Even with your eyes closed (or barely open), David Attenborough’s timbre envelopes and comforts; it draws to mind faded half-memories of pipe smoke and tweed, mental fabrications of the voice that almost always remains behind the camera. But I have a feeling there might be a deeper reason we run to these documentaries as our rejuvenation of choice.
With Planet Earth II, the follow-up to the groundbreaking 2006 series Planet Earth, now available on DVD and streaming in the US, the question I find myself asking is why did they need to make another one? For all intents and purposes, these nature docs have maintained the same structure for the last 15 years, and there is no apparent effort to stray now. Clearly, their method still works – the opening episode drew 9.2 million viewers in the UK – so the two most important questions become a) how does this newest incarnation carry the torch and b) what makes this a progression, rather than a simple regurgitation?
To answer these questions, I chose to view Planet Earth II through the same lens I viewed the rest. How does PEII stand up as replacement for Gatorade and Advil?
When I first realized that the practice of an a.m. nature doc might be more widespread than my immediate friend group, I thought it represented a sensible juxtaposition to the night before. We wake up after our weekend sessions of revelry, our most concentrated forays into the social realm, and then flee in the other direction. We escape the social by removing ourselves from it completely, absconding our previous night’s human interaction by venturing to the deepest depths of the Pacific or the highest peaks of the Himalayas, places which have seen few humans and which few humans have seen. We seek purity, and we find it among the animals.
This idea that we pursue an asocial therapy has merit on the surface level, but while watching Planet Earth II, I realize that it negates the most essential aspect of these documentaries. We watch not for the animals or the plants, but the drama. The highlight of these viewings is never the placid landscapes (though beautiful) or the gentle narration (though comforting), but the moments of fierce excitement and familial bonding.
It becomes clear only moments into the first episode of Planet Earth II that this type of documentary is not an objective, antisocial refuge from our social escapades. Rather, it serves as a proxy; we see our own personal dramas reflected in the lives of oblivious animals.
The opening scene shows a pygmy three-toed sloth swimming across a river in a valiant effort to find a mate on the other side, driven to a speed and determination we might not expect from an animal so prone to lethargy. To the mid-morning viewer, this presents not a sterile retreat from the escapades of the night before, but a mirror. In this bright-eyed sloth, intrepidly crossing the mangroves, we see ourselves crossing Washington Street; as he gazes up at the tree, before making his trek, we see the same zeal we felt only 12 hours before, with four lanes separating us and Art House.
The sloth comes up empty-handed, as we so often do.
Later on in the episode, we watch with anticipation and dread as an iguana surfaces from its birthplace, deep under the sand, and heroically races to join its family on the rocks by the sea, a relentless brigade of snakes right on its tail.
This scene went viral in the fall as a standalone clip—as of writing, the video is on the cusp of 10 million views on YouTube. It is an obvious block-buster, and not just because of its pure entertainment value: the wicked snakes and the innocent iguana conform directly to our Judeo-Christian ideals of good and evil. They form a clear-cut duality that affirms our perceptions, and compounds our naïve view of the natural world as reflective of a value system.
A snake provides a biblical source for evil, so we project our conception of evil onto the snake. We intrinsically root for the underdog, in this case a lizard, and give these interactions a kind of divine importance—though they happen every day, the fact that they are now visible means it is vital that the lizard lives, that good triumphs over evil.
We see ourselves in the lizard—we remember running from P-Safe the night before, those snakes dressed in black and red.
We later remember black and red snakes are the safest ones.
We later remember there was nothing to run from—we had done nothing wrong, and they were not chasing us. They probably hadn’t even seen us. But the thrill of the chase beckoned us, so we ran, and didn’t stop running until we hit the falafel truck. Our rocks by the sea.
Our viewing in the morning was not to forget this story, to let it disappear into the ether of freshman year memories. We sought not a pill to forget, but to cement our experiences, and to justify them.
On the other end of the entertainment spectrum from nature documentaries, we find a similar kind of self-centered voyeurism, a similar attempt to validate our actions based on those of a completely dissociated populace, in reality TV. Our 21st century desire for authenticity in entertainment is realized most fully in shows like Jersey Shore, where the viewer finds his or herself a fly on the wall. The “reality” in these shows is a mere artifice—the scenes are crafted in the studio, lines pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle to form a cogent 20-minute narrative.
We are Wesleyan students, and we don’t watch that trash; we watch documentaries. But BBC Nature docs are reality TV to the highest power; the actors are the most exploitable, the settings the most foreign and outrageous. We see the same themes --love, lust, rejection, backstabbing -- in both mediums. Yet we can convince ourselves that we are learning something of substance, that the subject matter redeems us. So we wake up and are redeemed.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of the baptismal revitalization humans can find in nature: “Trees stir memories; live water heals them. The creek is the mediator, benevolent, impartial, subsuming my shabbiest evils and dissolving them...it is a place even my faithlessness hasn’t offended.” Planet Earth II gives the promise of the creek in the comfort of a dorm room. It gives us deliverance, with a wink and a nod.
As to what Planet Earth II does differently from its predecessors, the answer is nothing. But it takes the blueprint and develops it; it doesn’t play with the form, but it perfects it. We are fully immersed and invisible, we obtain a self-affirming omnipotence that both grounds and elevates us. We are the lizard and the sloth.