Planet Earth 2: Deserts was like Mad Max: Fury Road with added locusts
After the heart-stopping drama of the Galapagos racing snakes, the lovely, lonely mountain snow leopards and last week's caiman-jaguar showdown, episode four of the BBC's Planet Earth II had a lot to live up to. Had we been spoilt? Would Deserts prove to be a bit, well, dry?
Luckily, all fears were misplaced, both in a strictly literal sense (there were some breathtaking shots of long-awaited rains transforming scorched landscapes) and more generally.
Sunday night's episode of Planet Earth II, presented by Sir David Attenborough, was every bit as mind-blowing as its predecessors, and offered a fascinating look at some of the most extreme environments on Earth.
Here are some of our highlights:
1. The opening scenes felt a bit like Mad Max: Fury Road
If The Mountains episode of Planet Earth II was like a more entertaining version of “The Revenant” (Leo’s bear got to maul, but did it get to dance?), this week’s instalment had a definite Mad Max feel to it.
A dramatic shot of a dust cloud, surging across the Namib like a billowing burnt-red tidal wave, was followed by a tense chase scene, as desperate lionesses pursued a herd of long-horned oryx across the sands. “Life here, for a hunter, is as hard as it gets,” explained Attenborough, with suitable gravitas, before the action cut to a spectacular overhead shot of the action.
Shimmering wide angles gave a great sense of scale (and some fantastically menacing shots of the lionesses, all lined up and advancing as one), but it was the smaller, carefully edited details that really stood out. The lean, muscled bodies and amber eyes of the big cats emerged in stunning relief, while a sudden close-up of a wet pink tongue licking a sharp tooth was perfectly, thrillingly timed.
Later on, the pack pursued a giraffe, which one brave (or just very hungry) lioness tried to take down. She ended up getting kicked aside, as her supersized prey made its escape...but the attempt was a stark illustration of the lengths to which the threat of starvation, exacerbated by barren conditions, had driven her.
2. Harris Hawks are scarier than velociraptors
Was anyone else thinking of the Jurassic Park kitchen scenes during this sequence, filmed in the cacti-populated deserts of the Americas?
There was something about the clawed yellow feet of the birds, combined with their curved, cruel beaks, that really made us shudder for the poor cornered ground squirrels.
Telling yourself that the pigeons crowded onto a tube platform are “living dinosaurs” in a weak attempt to liven up your commute is all very well, but it’s footage like this that really brings the relationship home. The fact these hawks were hunting in a pack (apparently they're the only bird of prey to do so ) simply upped the chilling resemblance.
Full credit should go to the programme-makers for framing the hunt scenes like a horror movie...and credit, too, to Attenborough for his disturbing narration: “They’re closing in from all sides….Soon, all escape routes are cut off....” Eek!
3. We never quite understood what a ‘plague of locusts’ entailed before
But we definitely do now.
4. Sand grouse make surprisingly dedicated dads...
The intrepid males, we learnt, fly 120 miles to fetch water for their chicks. They risk their lives (and risk looking utterly ridiculous) to stand on the dangerous banks of the waterhole, soaking their breast feathers in precious liquid, before lugging a quarter of their body weight in water back home.
The footage of the grousefather finally breast(feather)-feeding his waiting offspring felt oddly touching, but the segment also served to highlight how, in the natural world, a grand life-and-death drama is playing out at almost every level of existence.
The images we saw of the waterhole featured a dazzling variety of creatures, from looming grey elephants to colourful antelopes and zebra...and yet the show forced us to focus on the small, easy-to-overlook birds at their feet; the animal-world "extras", if you like.
Lo and behold, these humble "extras" turned out to be quite remarkable.
5. But butcher birds also have (grimly) good parenting skills
Leatherface, eat your heart out: that nifty arrangement of bodies on cactus spikes was impressively macabre.
But, as Attenborough's narration made clear, the gory little bird's display was also a very sensible way of protecting its kills from scavengers.
6. Wild horses are really...wild
In scenes that could have been straight out of a Western, a tall dark stranger arrived from out of town to challenge the status quo and end a leader's reign.
Instead of protagonists on horseback, however, Planet Earth II gave us the much more refreshing sight of horses as protagonists...without a rider or cowboy boot in sight.
The result was a sequence of incredible beauty – mustang are graceful, magnificent creatures, especially when shot against the dusty rock and impossibly wide sky of their desert home – and shocking brutality.
"There's everything to lose," Attenborough reminded us, as the two warring stallions headbutted, bit and kicked each other. "A broken leg or a shattered jaw could mean a slow and painful death."
7. Can David Attenborough please narrate the next Batman movie?
Someone get Zack Snyder on the phone, pronto. This episode's Bat vs Super-scorpion tussle already had some appropriately moody night-vision lighting, but it was Attenborough's superb narration (superficially calm, but with a definite underlying relish) that really helped rack up the tension.
"The battle is on!" he exclaimed. "Armed with crushing pincers and a sting loaded with venom, this scorpion is a dangerous opponent...
"A direct strike on the head...is it all over? Not for this bat."
It was impossible to suppress a cheer.