Seven Worlds, One Planet, David Attenborough’s stunning celebration of Earth’s biodiversity, prepares a new generation to save a beautiful world
25 October 2019
By Simon Ings
The floor of St Andrew’s Bay in South Georgia is littered with sea anemones, starfish and three-metre-long nematode worms. Giant jellyfish are only occasional visitors to the bay, but one happened by during the filming of Antarctica, the first episode of the BBC’s new natural history flagship series, Seven Worlds One Planet, with David Attenborough fronting the show.
It had strayed into the bay from the open ocean, and quickly regretted it. “You think it’s the giant jellyfish that’s going to be eating the sea anemones,” explains Fredi Devas, Antarctica’s producer, “but it’s the sea anemones that are reeling it in. They just grab hold of the jellyfish’s tentacles and devour it.”
This is one of the more gruesome, visually spectacular and technically demanding sequences assembled from 80 expeditions in 41 countries by a 1500-strong crew, many of whom have devoted three years of their lives to the series.
David Attenborough, of course, is there to explain what we’re seeing, in what must be his most ambitious attempt to tackle the world’s biodiversity and variety.
During the first screening of the show, he had some green life lessons for the world’s children, as Indian and South African kids were video-linked into the event. When they asked him what they could do to help animals and save the planet, he had a message of hope, saying that the older they got, the more they could do.
But his most urgent message was that while they should live the way they wanted, the trick was “just don’t waste”: look after the natural world, and its animals and plants because it is their planet too. Seven Planets, One World is part of an ambitious plan by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit to release a major, conservation-minded series every year until 2023.
The commercial logic for this is clear: Blue Planet 2 was watched by around 750 million people. But there are other motivations: the climate crisis, and the gathering pace of extinctions; and the desire to exploit a stream of new technologies, including quieter drones, better batteries, lighter cameras, and improved low light performance. “The upshot is we can tell stories as one would with a scripted drama,” says executive producer Jonny Keeling.
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Arranged by continent, and reflecting the diversity of life that emerged on each vast landmass once the supercontinent of Pangaea broke up 200 million years ago, Seven Worlds combines geology, climate and natural history to highlight our extraordinary present. It’s a time in which a single species — humans — finds itself having to worry about the living systems of the entire planet.
It’s not all bad news. In the Antarctica episode, eerily lit shots of abandoned whaling stations, whose activities brought several species to the brink of extinction, mark a dark moment in our ecological story. But whale numbers are recovering, and to prove the point, the episode also shows the largest aggregation of great whales ever filmed, as 150 animals spread spiralling nets of bubbles to gather a harvest of krill.
But it’s the more intimate stories that benefit most from the film industry’s suite of new and fast-improving technologies. A slim, probe-like lens was used to approach the nest of a grey-headed albatross on South Georgia, and afforded us the most moving, and disconcerting image of the film.
The extraordinary thing is, albatross parents do not recognize their chicks outside the nest they’ve built for them. Now storms whose strength is being hugely exacerbated by climate change are blowing the chicks out of their nests. It’s the main reason why albatross numbers have halved in the last 15 years.
Watching the plight of a single chick, at death’s door, unable to attract the attention of its parent, is certainly an emotive moment, but it’s also an important demonstration of what the Baltic German biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll, in 1909, dubbed the “Umwelt”.
Every animal has an Umwelt, an environment in which it exists and evolves its own world of meaning. The rest of the world goes by virtually unnoticed. Humans notice more of the world than many other animals. Indeed, it’s vanishingly unlikely that any other species on the planet notices as much as we do.
But we still don’t notice everything. And that is why a TV show like Seven Worlds, coming after so many earlier ground-breaking shows, can still make us catch our breath. The world really is still full of surprises.
Seven Worlds One Planet, BBC 2, 6:15pm BST, Sunday 27 October
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