It’s always expected that David Attenborough documentaries produce images of such majesty, such precision, and such incredible reality. But even after several decades, his programmes still wield power in the unpredictable: shocking, enticing and flirting with your feelings.
In Attenborough's snow-smothered sequel series Frozen Planet II, there's a shot where a seal, some orcas, and a floating mass of ice collaborate in one of the most striking shots on TV this year. It's beautifully edited, arranged like an epic, Antarctic battle sequence – layered with a thunderous score by movie maestro Hans Zimmer. It’s the kind of breath-snatching scene found in The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, only you know it’s not a fantasy.
David Attenborough in Frozen Planet II. Photo: BBC
This first episode opens with Attenborough staring up at a tall projection of the Earth. He looks wise and godlike, yet the planet almost engulfs him – he’s omniscient, but not omnipotent. Following suit, the messages about global warming loom over the stories of these frozen worlds like a dark omen that can't be ignored.
As well as using evocative visuals of precarious islands of ice, crumbling glaciers and endangered wildlife, the series unambiguously stamps on your brain that ‘our frozen wildernesses are disappearing at faster rates than ever before’. The issue is more urgent now than 11 years ago, when the original Frozen Planet aired.
Like any great ensemble drama, Frozen Planet II balances the doom and gloom of nature with its innate comedy.
Emperor penguins leave their young to fend for themselves. One shot shows a parent walking through a chick, pushing them over just to get away.
When polar bears aren't hunting them, male hooded seals try to attract females with their erectable noses – the bigger the schnozz, the more desirable they are (reassuring to this conk-face critic). But with the expansion of blood-red sacks, inflated like snot bubbles, their species becomes a bit revolting.
And then there’s the beautiful, dangerous, near-extinct Siberian tiger, which appears to lament the presence of a bear by a tree. The tiger proceeds to lick the bark, as if dreaming of the meat that once stood there. Also, speaking of cats, the Pallas's cat is another adorable treasure: the most huggable creature in the episode, and not just because it's labelled 'the grumpiest cat in the world'.
The Pallas's cat. Photo: BBC
This series also explores frozen areas beyond the North and South Poles: gliding through the Andes in South America and the Himalayas in Asia, before thrusting into the vast boreal forest that extends across Europe, Russia, and North America. You plunge into these chilly landscapes and meet the wonderful characters that populate them.
This opening episode also concludes with a behind-the-scenes featurette. This time following a camera crew as they use aerial drones to film collapsing glaciers. They’re tired, miserable and smothered by armies of mosquitos, but they get the shot. Such is the depressing, uncomfortable process of filmmaking, the suffering devotion to telling stories that could shift the world’s axis. These craftspeople are often the unsung heroes, and they deserve as much respect as Attenborough.
Frozen Planet II airs on Sunday 11 September at 8pm on BBC One.
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11 Sep 22 – 11 Sep 23, ON BBC ONE
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