Monday, November 14, 2016

Planet Earth Is Blue, And There's Something We Can Do: Root For The Baby Iguana As It Is Chased By A Racing Snake

Godlike genius: David Attenborough (far left)
David Attenborough has forgotten more about television than most people will ever know, so presumably he knows that he is playing God in Planet Earth II (BBC iPlayer). 
It wasn’t always like this. In his younger days, Attenborough was more of an explorer than a celestial spectre. But the great communicator no longer gets down with the apes. He is primarily a voiceover artist these days, lending honeyed reason to the extraordinary work of the BBC Natural History unit, yet he appears at the start of the first episode of this new series, two miles above the earth’s surface, with grey-hair and sky-blue puffa jacket, looking down. What does he see? He sees “the sheer grandeur and splendour and power of the natural world.” He promises that we will get closer to the animals than ever before. And he cautions, almost imperceptibly, that the planet has changed.
Attenborough is a benign deity, so the warning is largely implicit. The earth he observes is identifiably our own, but the way in which it is viewed is literally wonderful, a rare and appealing thing in these cynical times. In natural history terms, Attenborough is a warm-blooded Reithian. He educates, informs and entertains, and understands that doing the third of these things properly makes achieving the first two much easier. Pick it apart, and you’ll find some traces of Animal Magic in the script. Unlike Johnny Morris, Attenborough doesn’t talk to the animals, and neither do the animals talk to him, but there are flecks of anthropomorphism in his approach. The serrated teeth of the Komodo dragon are, he notes, “as sharp as steak knives”. That crab snacking on the dead skin of an iguana’s back is providing “a welcome exfoliation service”. The chin-strap penguins riding a deadly Antarctic swell at the edge of an active volcano are embarking on a “formidable commute”.
But Attenborough is just the figurehead. Primarily, Planet Earth II is a triumph of photography, and the filming really does exist at the fringes of what is technically possible. How do they do that stuff? Some of it must be down to drones, but the bulk of it is achieved through skill and endurance, and the results are extraordinary. Obviously we can all identify with the pygmy three-toed sloth (pronounced, apparently, to emphasise the “slow” in sloth). But have you ever seen one swim? Lemurs, we know, are cute, but how about those tiny bamboo lemurs? Or the marine iguana grazing on the sea floor? Or the racer snakes chasing the iguana hatchlings? You have to feel for the baby iguanas, especially with the soundtrack emphasising the Hitchcock-like dread of the moment, but the sprinting snakes are incredible. Look at the marching crabs on Christmas Island, 50 million of them, crabbing along, until they’re ambushed by crazy ants, squirting acid in their eyes. The whole thing is amazing, fantastic, beautiful; beyond Disney. Planet Earth II really is television operating at the peak of its powers. 
Stephen Poliakoff's Close To The Enemy (BBC iPlayer) is set in the bombed-out London of 1946, where Cal (Jim Sturgess) plays an intelligence officer charged with turning a German “jetplane man” (August Diehl). A war comic mood prevails, as the action unfurls in a hotel - “a funny old mausoleum" - with cheery prostitutes in the corridors and a jazz band in the basement. There is much ado about stale sponge and toffee apples. Everything is hush hush, until Angela Bassett starts handing out oranges. Alfred Molina arches an eyebrow. You could cut the tension with a plate of cabbage.

Catch-Up TV 
People are asking: is Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) any good? It is clever, flamboyantly so, but watching it is like playing roulette with a pack of cards. This week, the mazy plot moved beyond gunplay and into the zone where those android narratives are created. Thandie Newton’s brothel-keeping android Maeve got to develop her consciousness, but had to appear naked for most of the episode, so it was swings and roundabouts. Here's the (odd) thing. Westworld is about the nature of humanity, but it is also about the dulling of the senses. The ultra-violence and the raping is fine, because it’s a game and the victims are robots in a cowboy fantasy. But does it amount to more than a labyrinthine exploration of guilty thrills? 


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