Monday 26 February 2018

Last Night's TV: Frozen Planet, BBC1

Tom Chivers is mightily impressed with Sir David Attenborough's latest polar TV series

You knew what to expect before you switched on the telly. Extraordinary footage of natural wonders overlaid with swelling strings and that marvellous knowledgeable whisper. At first glance, Frozen Planet, the latest epic David Attenborough documentary series on BBC One, is nothing new: what it is, however, is brilliant.

In this latest offering from the BBC Natural History unit, examining the great frozen wildernesses of the Arctic and Antarctic – strange lands where days and nights last for six months – the old formula was in place. The names of top predators were always given a suitably dramatic pause: “…wolves!”, “…a southern sea lion!” Herds of prey formed defensive circles, their stalking enemies sought to separate the weak or the sick. Penguins leapt comically through the water; giant humpbacks pirouetted through the air. Time-lapse photography showed the changing of the seasons: “The struggle for life never lets up…” An Attenborough documentary is a familiar beast. He’s been doing them for 57 years: understandably, he feels he’s got the hang of them by now.

Early on, we watched a male polar bear tracking a female for miles, then defending his mate against a series of would-be challengers, leaving him bloodied but victorious. It was a fantastic piece of filming: two giant males, the largest predators on land, battering each other with claw and fist. But almost as soon as it was over, it had been topped by the next scene: a pack of wolves stalking a herd of bison through the tundra. The herd panicked and charged, and one buffalo smashed a younger herd-mate into the ground in his headlong rush, leaving it to the mercy of the wolves.

After that the scenes competed with each other for the title of most beautiful. Meltwater on the Greenland ice cap carved copper-sulphate-blue runnels through the two-mile-thick ice, plunging into mile-deep crevasses. The ice itself moved, forming vast glaciers that carved through mountains. The glaciers rumbled on to the sea, creaking and teetering and finally snapping, falling in vast bergs into the Arctic ocean, floating off like strange white sculptures.

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