Telecleanse: The Purity of Planet Earth


A newly hatched marine iguana discreetly pushes its head out of its egg. After approximately four months of incubating beneath the warm sands of the Galápagos Islands, the young iguana's first moments of life are subject to a scene of butchery.  An infinite legion of racer snakes act as gatekeepers to the sanctuary of the rocks above them - they are the thin lines between a life of safety lounging on the coast, and being crushed to death and devoured by an orgy of serpents.     

The iguana attempts to make its way in stealth, relying on the biological understanding that racers snakes are nearly blind. Like a statue, it remains motionless while one idly approaches. The slightest tremor will alert the demons to a potential feast. The scene suddenly transforms into a lit stick of dynamite - its burning fuse slowly telegraphing the explosion soon to happen.

Through some incredulous wisp of luck the snake slithers right into the iguana, triggering the start of one of the most unbelievable escape scenes to ever be filmed. 

Meanwhile, my partner and I are sitting on the couch shoving generous fistfuls of snacks into our mouths only to have to spit out as we both erupt in a fit of hooting and hollering at the emotional roller-coaster we just experienced. 

If you spent a little time on the internet last month there's a good chance you've seen this video, which has now pushed well around eight million views on Youtube. It's an excerpt from an episode of BBC's Planet Earth II, the sequel to arguably one of the best nature documentaries in television history. 

The premise behind Planet Earth is pretty straight forward. Film teams and scientists collaborate to explore and capture the natural world in ways couch-dwelling lards like myself have never seen before. Each scene is narrated by naturalist David Attenborough, whose honeyed voice accompanies us while we watch things like orcas executing a savage attack on a mother whale and her calf, young ibexes scaling down a cliff in order to escape a fix, or a horny sloth questing for a mate. 

Planet Earth somehow manages to stuff everything you would want out of television and neatly encapsulates it into a nature documentary. Adrenaline, tension, melancholy - in the span of one episode I will somehow manage to engage in the entire spectrum of emotion, probably crying through a mouth full of pork rinds. However, there is something about that particular experience that sets it apart from regular TV. But what is it about Planet Earth that differentiates its emotional involvement in comparison to other kinds of television? Why is Planet Earth so Good and Pure and Why Is The Rest of the World So Vile? 

One obvious answer is the show's narrator. David Attenborough has been a part of the BBC on and off for well over half a century. With the 1979 release of the documentary "Life on Earth", Attenborough established a high standard for all natural history documentaries to come. His serious devotion to detail about his subjects helped create a critical understanding of the world around that. 

But that's not important. Forget about that. What's important is that David Attenborough is the most adorable fucking naturalist you will ever meet. I have watched this old boy roll up on a sloth and say "Boo!" and subsequently follow up with a series of sloth related facts that almost makes you forget that a second ago he tried to scare one. Things like reverently referring to jumping spiders as "geniuses" or narrating Adele's music video for "Hello" that makes Attenborough stand apart from a lot of his peers. He's genial, almost enough to make us forget the calloused comments he occasionally makes about the global population or race. 

One of the reasons Planet Earth is so good is that it curates in a manner that seems almost pure and innocent. 

Take for example, a comparison between a recent scene from National Geographic and one from Planet Earth II.

The first one, titled "Penguin Homewrecker Fights Bloody Battle" features a brutal scene in which a male penguin returns to his nest only to find his place hijacked by another penguin. A fight ensues between the two of them that erupts into a bloodbath as eyes are stabbed, and once white coats become soaked with blood. The video evokes a sort of human sensationalism about penguins that feels a little dirty. Deep down in my heart I probably knew or understood that penguins could be philandering brutes, what I'm trying to consider is if it's good for my soul to watch them brawl on the internet in a tab I should have set to incognito because I don't want my partner to know I've been watching penguins go WorldStar. 

Now, in Planet Earth II, there is a scene that features penguins attempting to forage for food for their young chicks. Zavadoski Island, the place where thousands of them roost, has no easily navigable shore, and instead penguins must essentially leap from volcanic cliffs constantly being battered by waves in order to get into the water and out.

It's clear that the penguins aren't good at this. Their tiny little bodies frequently smash against the rock and fall limply into the water. Ravaged by the perilous environment, some penguins are shown bloodied and injured, but still able to carry food to their chicks.

This isn't always true though. The producers knew too well that numerous penguins died in an attempt to feed their young. In a behind-the-scenes short, the producers mentioned that the scene was filled with 'death and destruction'. Penguins with broken legs attempting to get onto the beach, which was already littered with the bodies of a few unlucky penguins. 

A lot of these scenes were edited out because producers deemed that the deaths of penguins was likely going to be too harsh for their audience, stating

"Penguins are particularly hard because they’re like little people... They look like little men dressed up in dinner jackets... Because they have a particular resonance with people, you have to be very, very careful."

At the end of the day, if I had to ask myself whether or not I want to see penguins get fucked up, my answer is an emphatic no. 

Planet Earth represents one of the apexes of Pure Content. It joins the pantheon of holistic television watching alongside other shows like Great British Bake-off or Terrace House. It makes me feel good watching it. 

In a time where the most popular TV shows include a conspicuously greasy southerner whose abilities include killing zombies really well and convincing an unbelievably large population of people that he is attractive, or writers who still don't quite understand that sexual trauma isn't 'innovative' or 'edgy' television (regardless of whether or not it's set in a fantasy world), Planet Earth is here to cleanse me of the sin of watching the other lurid television shows that I...uh...also enjoy.

So the next time you feel a little overwhelmed by all the shit you watch - take a deep breath, light some incense, crack open a bag of pork rinds, and sit down and let Planet Earth work do its magic. 

Dec 21, 2017

review, cultureAlex Yann