Nature Documentaries are Pleasant Viewing, but “Our Planet” Changes that Forever

Pop Culture

Nature Documentaries are Pleasant Viewing, but “Our Planet” Changes that Forever

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

If you find yourself in the vicinity of a TV screen this month, odds are it’ll be showing an IPL match, election news, or a Game of Thrones episode. Great options if you’re looking for edge-of-your-seat excitement, but if you’re like me, the non-stop rollercoaster can make you nauseous. Sometimes, you need something that’s soothing to your senses, which transports you from the chaos of human life to a more primitive, peaceful state of being. That’s where nature documentaries come to the rescue. With all these televised thrill-rides unfolding simultaneously, the series Our Planet came as a welcome relief, or so I thought. I expected a calm, gentle experience to help me unwind at the end of a long day; I ended up with a few more white hairs than when I started watching.

I’ve always been hooked to nature documentaries. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the first book I remember owning was an animal encyclopaedia, but as a child, I used to spend as much time watching National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet as I did Cartoon Network. The first celebrity death I ever cared about was in 2006, when “The Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin died. Irwin loved wildlife like Viveik Oberoi loves Narendra Modi, and unlike Oberoi, Irwin’s passion was contagious. Watching him travel to the world’s wildest places to educate the public about the wonderful creatures we share this planet with played a huge role in fuelling my obsession.

It wasn’t just Irwin who played a role, but an entire cast of wildlife presenters and conservationists. There were Jeff Corwin and Austin Stevens, who followed in Irwin’s footsteps with their hands-on approach. There were local heroes like Bittu Sahgal and Valmik Thapar, whom I was lucky enough to meet in person at documentary screenings. And finally, there was Sir David Attenborough, the BBC stalwart who has been the face and voice of stunning environmental films longer than most of the world’s population has been alive.

Attenborough is the narrator for Our Planet, the Netflix series that at first glance seems to be a spiritual successor to the seminal BBC series Life and Planet Earth, which he has presented since the ’60s. Visually, Our Planet is as stunning, if not more so, than any other nature documentary I’ve seen. The sweeping panoramas of natural grandeur in these films normally put me in a state of idyllic tranquillity. But as the first episode of Our Planet drew to a close, I realised it wasn’t providing me the usual solace, but causing me stress instead.

Despite sporting the familiar trappings of most prestigious nature documentaries, Our Planet’s tone is markedly more urgent. While shows like Planet Earth and Blue Planet were escape hatches from civilisation that provided stunning retreats into the bosom of the wild, in Our Planet the presence of humans and the impact of their activity looms like an impending storm-cloud.

Our Planet makes no bones about issuing a warning that human activity will not go unchecked without consequences from the natural world

The eight-part series takes viewers on a globe-spanning journey across the diverse biomes that make up our planet. From tropical rainforests to the frozen poles, from the high seas to arid, scorched deserts, the show celebrates the incredible variety of flora and fauna that call this planet home alongside us. However, even when presenting magnificent scenes like dolphins frolicking in the waves off the coast of Africa, or thousands of penguins waddling through an Antarctic blizzard, Attenborough’s unmistakable voice is quick to remind viewers that these slices of Eden are just that – the vastly diminished remnants of ecosystems that were once bursting with biodiversity.

Our Planet makes no bones about issuing a warning that human activity will not go unchecked without consequences from the natural world. A recurring theme in each episode sees Attenborough outline how one biosphere is intricately interconnected with others across the world, and how tiny breakdowns in this elaborate system can set off a domino effect that can lead to total collapse. There are several apocalyptic tableaux in the series, like the now infamous clip of walruses plummeting to their deaths off rock cliffs, or the sped-up time-lapses of coral along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef becoming bleached, and then dying. Nature documentaries used to be my happy place to retreat to from other shows, but Our Planet left me more shook than when Ned Stark was beheaded in GoT.

It’s one thing to know that climate change is adversely affecting the world we live in, but Our Planet takes compelling evidence and puts in front of you like few other nature documentaries have before it. An article on The Ringer sums it up by saying, “Nature documentaries tend to emphasize the simplicity of life in the wild, in contrast with the complexities of human civilization… They serve as an oasis, a resting place for weary travelers to zone out and take in some beauty. Our Planet does not have this same effect, nor is it meant to.”

By intentionally providing a harder-to-stomach experience for viewers, Our Planet succeeds in its goal of making what used to be a passive medium of infotainment an important platform to call for change by making its audience think. Attenborough’s voice might sound the same, but the world he’s presenting has changed, drastically and for the worse. This is his wake-up call.