Circumnavigating Blue Planet II

Rounding up our expert tv reviews of Blue Planet II we identify the highs and (minimal) lows of a stunning series.

Go to the profile of Luíseach Nic Eoin
Dec 15, 2017
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In the course of the last seven weeks, 14.1 million of us have watched, spellbound, while David Attenborough told us stories of the sea just before Sunday bedtime. While there are many of us who would probably listen rapt while David Attenborough narrated the inside of a paper bag, the footage on Blue Planet II captured the imagination and attention, not only of the general public, but of the scientific community as well. At Nature Eco Evo we had some inclination this might be the case, having seen similar attention for Planet Earth II last year (who’ll ever forget the racer snakes chasing the baby iguana?) and so we thought it would be a fun idea for our community site to commission tv reviews from marine scientists who would give their inside takes on the research we’ve seen each Sunday night, as well as some critique on the programme.

And it was. If I hadn’t read Ellie Owen’s review of the Coasts episode, how would I have learned that apparently the noise of polar bears skidding on ice is made by filling a pair of tights with custard powder and then squeezing it? Or if I hadn’t read Michael Haslam’s take on tool use in Episode 1, that the real tool-using superstar of the episode wasn’t Percy the tuskfish and his/her (it’s complicated) clam-anvil coral, but rather the orcas that use the sea itself as a hunting weapon? Without exception, in each of our seven reviews, our reviewers have brought their insider knowledge to bear on enhancing our understanding of what the episode has told us. The final episode, Our Blue Planet, showed us that conservation can be an incredibly emotive issue for the researchers involved as they face what can seem like an uphill battle (and more on this subject in this great piece from science writer Ed Yong). It’s clear that this emotion stems from passion and enthusiasm that researchers have not only for studying their subject, but for conveying its importance to others.

If there has been an overarching theme to Blue Planet II, it’s been that of human footprint (mostly catastrophic) on the oceans, and the devastating impact of climate change. By contrast, if there’s been an overarching theme to our review series, it’s been the importance of balance between telling a good story to hook watchers in, and getting things accurate. This has taken two forms: the first is the narrative language the programme uses, the second is in focusing on the story rather than the facts.

In his review of episode 2, The Deep, Alan Jamieson let us in on a secret: he rarely watches nature documentaries about his research area, the deep sea. This is because, he says, he gets tired about the exoticisation of the deep – comparing it to the Moon or Mars, talking about aliens, use of spooky music (Evidently I wasn’t the only viewer to think that Hans Zimmer could have toned things down occasionally). Reviewing Episode 4, Big Blue, Cathy Lucas noticed a similar trend where jellyfish were being discussed, as ‘aliens’ or ‘deadly blobs’. These terms only serve to distance us from important organisms and areas of the earth that we are learning more and more about – and if we ever needed more proof that the deepest oceans are not remote Martian landscapes, Alan’s paper published earlier this year in Nature Eco Evo, showing that organisms in the Mariana and Kermadec trenches contain high concentrations of persistent organic pollutants, depressingly does just that.

A focus on the story, not the facts, led to our reviewers raising issues with Episodes 3 (Coral Reefs) and 6 (Coasts) as well. Sal Keith didn’t want to pour cold water on David Attenborough’s message of hope for coral reef recovery, but it has to be acknowledged that the programme veered near oversimplification of how difficult a process coral reef recovery is and how much there is to get wrong in terms of balance. Similarly, Ellie Owen noted some puffins who should have stayed silent: displaying behaviours usually characterised by silence, the insertion of loud grumbling noises really jarred. 

In the same way that a sad story demands narrative resolution with hope (as the coral reef episode conclusion showed), every hero needs a villain, it seems. In the coasts episode, Arctic skuas were painted as thieving thugs who wouldn’t let poor puffins catch a break (or some fish) when, as Ellie points out, humans are the real culprits depriving puffins of food through our direct and indirect impacts on the seas.

Not wanting to be too hard on Blue Planet II (and one thing I liked about our series of reviews was their balance), one way to get behind the story and show the pesky facts that might be thought to interfere with good telly has been the ten minute segments at the end of each episode showing how unbelievably difficult shots were filmed, and the last episode of the series, Our Blue Planet, was another example of this, highlighting the diverse communities of research scientists and conservationists working to save our seas and the creatures who inhabit them. In her review, Maria Beger went through the conservation questions posed and looked at possible solutions to reducing plastic and noise, and working together. This last emphasis was also a feature of Leanne Cullen-Unsworth’s review of the Green Seas episode, where she linked to citizen science efforts to map and monitor seagrass meadows.

In recapping all our reviews, one of my favourite things I’ve noticed was the dialogue emerging between the reviews – discussion on twitter, comments added to the blog posts themselves by members of the Eco Evo Community, and the unintentional (?) call and response between two reviewers. Alan Jamieson pointed out that one of the reasons it’s so important to get programmes like Blue Planet II right is that “it will serve as a blue print for what a generation will think of when they think about aspects of the oceans”. Ellie Owen’s comment that "I grew up seeing snippets of nature’s soap opera going on on my TV and it gave me confidence to go out myself and start looking for it" would seem to confirm that, and I’m sure it’s very far from being a unique response. Programmes like Blue Planet II manage to unite the most disparate and diverse audiences (apparently the biggest viewing figures for a British tv show this year), inspire budding scientists, and remind us that even the farthest parts of the oceans are still home.

We’re hugely thankful to all of our reviewers – Michael Haslam, Alan Jamieson, Sal Keith, Cathy Lucas, Leanne Cullen-Unsworth, Ellie Owen and Maria Beger – for taking the time to share their thoughts with us, and to you for reading!

Go to the profile of Luíseach Nic Eoin

Luíseach Nic Eoin

Associate Editor, Nature Ecology & Evolution

Luíseach joined Nature Plants as a locum editor in early 2016, before joining Nature Ecology and Evolution later that year. After a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, she studied Palaeolithic Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology at University College London, followed by a DPhil studying hunter-gatherer archaeo-ethnobotany and stone tools from southern Africa at the University of Oxford, supervised by Peter Mitchell. Her primary interests include hominid evolution and ecology, human-plant interactions, heritage and conservation. Other interests include cats and food security (not least her own).

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson about 1 month ago

I absolutely loved this series (the actual TV series and the series of reviews) - thanks so much to all the reviewers and of course to you, Luíseach, for commissioning them! I really learnt a lot.

Go to the profile of Luíseach Nic Eoin
Luíseach Nic Eoin about 1 month ago

thanks Ben!