It may not feature any recognizable superstars — just some of the world’s rarest and most fascinating creatures — but Planet Earth II has managed to become the most watched natural history program in the UK for more than 15 years. The BBC1 saga documents, in stunning Ultra HD detail, Earth’s various habitats and the ways in which the animals that live in them overcome daily challenges.
It’s rare that documentaries are engaging enough to make learning fun. Like Planet Earth II, National Geographic’s Before the Flood takes a serious topic — climate change — and presents it in a way that mimics entertainment. Of course it helps a great deal that Leonardo DiCaprio is the one presenting it, accompanied by an original score from the likes of Mogwai, Trent Reznor and Gustavo Santaolalla. While Planet Earth II does not have a Hollywood actor to buoy it, it does have someone quite distinguished to narrate it and imbue it with soul: Sir David Attenborough.
The 90-year-old British naturalist has had quite the career. Long before Bear Grylls showed us how to survive in the wild, Attenborough brought remarkable animals into viewers’ living rooms after joining the BBC in the 1950s. Aside from proving that wildlife programs could attract large audiences and result in high ratings, he also commissioned the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The cult comedy sketch show turned actors John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam into household names.
There’s a reason the Zoological Society of London called Sir David the world’s greatest ambassador for animals. From Zoo Quest 60 years ago, when he famously caught the elusive Komodo dragon for the first time on film, to Frozen Planet in 2011, he has helped shape the natural history documentary as we know it today.
For Planet Earth II, a sequel to the first series in 2006, Attenborough is back, tackling environmental issues with a far subtler approach. Across six episodes, it sets out to showcase the natural world in the hope we might be inspired to preserve it. It doesn’t show how terrible everything is or present the worst possible outcome for Mother Nature. With its a film-worthy soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Planet Earth II simply and effectively highlights how awe-inspiring the earth still is via, for instance, a brutal mating ritual between snow leopards or a chase scene involving a pack of snakes.
Sir David’s deep, soothing voice and distinct enunciation seem to have become the golden standard by which all nature documentary narrators are now measured. Fortunately, the veteran broadcaster also has a lighter side. Last year he chronicled the music video to Adele’s Hello during an appearance on BBC Radio 1. He even made this summer’s Pokémon GO sound positively heroic when a video mashed up his wildlife commentary with footage of the game.
On voicing nature programs, he once told The Telegraph: “The point about the commentary is that it should be comprehensible and that it should fit the pictures and be delivered in an authoritative way.” The original Planet Earth won four Emmys a decade ago. With Sir David Attenborough on board once more, its follow-up is likely to be as critically acclaimed.