So it’s back.
It’s fucking baaaack!
Can you tell I’m excited?
The original The Blue Planet was a stunning, BBC-produced nature documentary, narrated by Great Britain’s favourite grandpa, David Attenborough. It premiered in 2001. It was nearly five years in the making, and—like a number of the BBC’s natural history docs—actually provided footage of a number of creatures and behaviours that had never before been observed in the wild. Scientists were, in effect, thanking Attenborough and the production crews for helping advance their fields. Basically, despite its many, many flaws, the BBC knows exactly what the fuck it’s doing when it comes to their nature documentaries.
Last year the BBC released a follow-up to that other Attenborough monolith, Planet Earth. It was glorious. And it was, like all of the man’s documentaries, a perfect hangover watch. So when it was announced earlier this year that Blue Planet would also be getting a follow-up, I did the only reasonable thing there was to do: I marked a date in the calendar, waited until the special night arrived, and then I went out, booze money burning a hole in my wallet and a mad glint in my eye, fully prepared to answer the question, ‘So, what’re you celebrating tonight?’ with, ‘Attenborough’s baaaaaack!’
And, because this is England, that’s something that everyone would understand and join in with immediately. Never mind what else they were drinking to or who else they were out with. Cousin getting married? Doesn’t matter, Attenborough’s back. Last night before deployment? Doesn’t matter, Attenborough’s back. Granddad’s wake? Doesn’t matter, Attenborough’s back.
There’s a term on this side of the pond: ‘TV pickup’. As per Wiki:
TV pickup is a term used in the United Kingdom to refer to a phenomenon that affects electricity generation and transmission networks. It often occurs when a large number of people watch the same TV programmes while taking advantage of commercial breaks to use toilets and operate electrical appliances, thus causing large synchronised surges in national electricity consumption.
In other words: The electrical grid has to brace itself for a surge during the ad breaks in the nation’s favourite shows when everyone goes to put the kettle on. Now I’m not saying that venues that supply people with alcohol have a term for the days that precede the broadcast of a David Attenborough nature doc, but they totally should do. The Attenborough re-up?
Anyway, I’m running a little bit behind on this, but whatever, it’s cool. The important thing is that I am hangover, and Blue Planet II is here, so let’s just settle in, close the blinds, and dive unsteadily in.
I’m not saying this is gonna be the hungover, nature documentary equivalent of Lord Castleton’s War and Peace-esque Game of Thrones recaps (because nothing compares to that majesty and nor will it ever), but yes, I might get my teeth sunk in now and then as I meander my way through the little mini-epics playing out beneath the waves on my journey to sobriety.
It helps when in the very first minute of the very first episode, it’s Davey himself who shows up to take our hand and to guide us through this pain. I mean, look at this motherfucker:
There’s a triumphant Hans Zimmer orchestral score swelling underneath this footage of Attenborough standing astride a boat tearing its way through the vast ocean (because everything the man does is just a dragon or two away from being a metal album cover), but you could just as easily substitute Attenborough’s official theme tune in and it would work equally well:
And of course a school of dolphins swim in front of the boat, majestically cresting the waves and chattering excitedly beneath the surface. Why wouldn’t they? Their king has returned.
Oh, wait just one second before we continue.
Boom. Sorry. But now that you’re all pregnant, let’s carry on.
And lest we think we’re gonna be dipping our toes in gently to this aquatic adventure, easing slowly in, ha!—Nope! Straight away they fire at us a barrage of imagery, a flurry of a tease of what’s to come. There are dolphins moving in coordinated fashion and at speeds that make them look like a squadron of X-Wings shooting in and out of a ball of some prey fish. There are some Orca—the martial artist gangs of the sea—tail-punching another ball of prey fish, seemingly stunning a bunch of them with the shockwave. There are shots of unimaginably strange looking creatures lurking in between folds of coral, some of which look so arse-backwards weird that I start to doubt whether what I’m experiencing is really just a hangover and not something more.
AND THEN THERE’S THIS DADAIST NONSENSE!
Yep, that’s fine. Just some sentient pillars of enormity, floating there in the featureless blue at impossible angles, laughing at our sense of scale.
When it came out, Planet Earth II rightfully came under some criticism, because while it reveled in the unparalleled beauty of the wild places of our planet, it seemed to sidestep addressing the increasingly deleterious effect that humanity is having on it. Well here it looks like Attenborough will not be letting humanity slide this time.
‘We’ve also recognised an uncomfortable fact,’ he says in his boat-based introduction. ‘The health of our oceans is under threat. They’re changing at a faster rate than ever before in human history.’
And then, as if to underscore what that might mean for humanity’s fragile existence on this world, a series of apocalyptic imagery is unleashed. Colossal icebergs crack, and an angry Arwen on cocaine stands just out of shot, stopping the Nazgul (humanity) from doing anymore evil:
Fuck. That’s my hangover doubled in intensity.
Anyway, that Zimmer music eventually reaches a crescendo, and Mr. A finishes his intro and the title screen rolls. Let the freakshow begin.
We’re gonna spend part of our time hanging out in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef this time, apparently. With a bit of a freak of nature called the Tuskfish. Here he is, look at the little toothy oddball:
David tells us this fish is weird. And we’re like, ‘Well, yeah, look at the little guy. Don’t rub it in, DA.’
But that’s not why, apparently. It’s not about the looks. It’s about his little fishy brains. Even though the jaunty clown music that Zimmer cheekily inserts underneath the Tuskfish shots does sorta add the message: ‘Yeah, it’s about the brains, yeah, sure. Absolutely. The looks are a bit of a part of it though. Just a bit.’
But no, mostly it’s about the Tuskfish challenging our understanding of fish intelligence.
No, what this mad little reef twat does instead is—and I’ll be honest, here I was expecting something quite underwhelming. Like maybe he poops in the same spot each day. Not that impressive for most humans, but for a fish? Yeah I mean I guess so?
Fuck that though. We don’t get told anything about his pooping habits. What we are shown instead is similar: The Tuskfish’s morning routine.
It goes a little bit like this:
1. Every morning he pops out to the edge of the reef. Nowt that special about that.
2. Past the edge he searches for something to eat. This he does by using his fins and special teeth to move rocks and sand until he finds what he’s looking for: A small clam. Okay, that’s quite cool, I guess. Is he gonna eat it now, and that’s it?
3. Nope! Obviously he’s gotta crack it open before he can eat it, Knava, you silly terrestrial tosser. So he picks it up and sets off somewhere. Gotta be honest, here I got a bit intrigued.
4. So then this little odd-looking fish, mouth full of teeth and clam, swims back into the reef, and back to his ‘usual’ bit of coral, which has a particular bump on the inside of it.
Now hang on a minute here… He doesn’t…
5. You fucking bet he does!
6. He lines that shit up, takes aim, and whacks the clam against the coral outgrowth! Again and again he slams it until it’s cracked open and he can feast on the probably brain-damaged-by-then clam within. The bastard has just used a tool. FISH ARE USING TOOLS! This show was meant to soothe my hangover! I don’t want to be worrying about when a fish I’d never heard of before figures out how to build and mass-produce an air-suit for breathing on land and uses that to raise an army and wage war upon the population of England! Because you just know they’d have a massive fish ‘n’ chip on their shoulder and they’d come for us first.
I’m not here for fish invading spaces that are not their own.
Fuck that. What’s next?
Ahhhhhh. Much better. Tropical islands. Dry seasons. Attenborough’s talking about competition between reef dwellers. All is well. Stupid, primitive reef dwellers that know their place and fight amongst themselves.
I’m a bit suspicious as to why you’re including these half million birds (terns) in an episode of a doc about the oceans—
—but sure whatever I guess they’re a part of the ecosystem and whatnot.
There’s a fucktonne of these birds on this atoll. Whole generations of chicks and fully grown terns. All ages. Some of them hang around on the beach, hopping about, some fly about a bit more. Some of the younger birds who find it harder to fly use the picturesque lagoon as a practice area. They can’t all stay in the air for long so they occasionally pop down onto the shallow water to have a little rest.
Aww. It’s like a postcard you’d send granny. Or an inspirational poster an annoying co-worker with no hope in life might send.
‘Shut the fuck up, Chad, I don’t give it a shit what the slogan says.’
But either way it’s nice that we’re finally soothing this hangov—
What. The. FUCK?! The little baby was just resting on the peaceful blue water and then suddenly it’s swiped from below by an unseen horror?! What is this, the bermuda triangle for terns?!
And then there’s a montage of these little helpless things getting got.
I reiterate: What the fuck?!
And then we see what the fuck.
AYYYYYYYYYY!!! NOOOOOOO!!! I DON’T FUCKING THINK SOOOOOO!
WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT FISH INVADING SPACES THAT ARE NOT THEIR OWN?!
‘Giant trevallies!’ exclaims Attenborough smugly, his ancient bloodlust sated by the horrific harvest. Fuck you, David, they are called ‘floating baby gobblers’ and that’s that.
There’s a whole army of these nightmare bird-eaters underneath the waves, all eager to chow down on the nearest feathered baby. Which they do. And which we see. And then because nature is apparently directed by Oliver Stone we get an ‘after the slaughter’ shot:
What did I say about them sticking to their space?
Although, sure, I guess the water surface is adjacent to their space. It’s like, that’s their border, you know? It’s not cool, but I get it. It might be horrifying, but it’s not a United States foreign policy-level cartoonish act of aggression, just attacking something sat on the actual surface of the wat—…
Hey what do you think you’re doing?
Yeah don’t worry about that, that’s way out there past any boundaries of your conceptions of water-based reality.
‘I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I so-…’ - That Bird, probably.
There’s a bit then about clouds, storms, and apocalyptic Arwen waves, all of which still feel less traumatic than that godawful display by the floating baby gobblers—
And then we go into a segment about the seasonal seas—the maddest, most temperamental of all the seas, which explode with life in the spring.
Explode how much?
Explode this much:
Swarms of Mobula rays in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.
And hey, guess what?! They don’t give a fuck about the rules either:
Yep. We’re shown footage of loads of them leaping out of the water. One after the other, all breaking down the barriers that hold this world in check.
‘Why do they leap?’ says our guide, Attenborough.
And then the scariest sentence from him:
‘No one knows.’
YOU’RE MEANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING, DAVID! WHAT THE HELL DO WE DO NOW?!
Cut to the coast off
Middle Earth New Zealand, and a herd? swarm? school? something of…
‘False Killer Whales,’ intones almost-omniscient Attenborough.
Which—fuck, man, I watch a lot of nature docs, and I’ve never heard of these things. I’m calling shenanigans. Even the animal itself is giving me the troll face, like:
‘You’ll believe anything this old man says.’
Attenborough: ‘They are relatives of the orca. Six metres long. And weighing over a tonne.’
‘Seriously. He could say literally anything and you’d buy it, wouldn’t you?’
‘We are just finding out that these remarkable animals actually show signs of understanding basic geometry.’
‘It is a little-known fact that the banking crash that brought the world to its knees in ‘07'08 was in fact orchestrated by a rogue group of False Killer Whales!’
Anyway, it must be a Swarm Episode, because there’s a fucktonne of these creatures, swimming, smiling, and chirping there below the waves.
Slightly disturbing group size aside, it all seems pretty harmless enough.
Until D.A., with that ominous rhythm of his, says: ‘They appear, to be searching for dolphins.’
What?! Why?! What do you want with dolphins?! Dolphins get up to their fair share of mischief, sure, but by and large they’re avatars of good in the azure wild West that is the sea. They’re mammals! They have human-ish eyes! They’re like benevolent dudebro stoner surfers. Leave ‘em the fuck alone, you False Killers.
Then we cut to the dolphins. Bottlenosed ones. The prettiest ones of all. There’s loads of ‘em, doing their dolphin shit. Frolicking, chattering. ‘Such a din carries for miles underwater!’ says Attenborough. Too much chattering! Keep it down, you conspicuous merry fucks! You don’t know what else is out there!
And then, sure enough:
That dolphin din attracts the False Killers, and Zimmer warms up his chase chords. At this point it’s like, ‘Holy shit. One giant pod of False Killers. One massive throng of dolphins. One way or another it’s gonna be a bloodbath. Let’s hope the surferbros are fast enough to get awa—…
Alright never mind.’
They catch up in no time. There’s not even any suspense or lead-up. It’s like the start of ‘Holy Wars’ by Megadeth. It just happens even before it starts.
And so the groups mingle while in motion. Flying along at super speeds through the clear water, leaping up and out of the waves, tails thrashing, this ain’t looking good for the dolphins.
But then they all just stop. Both groups, now fully mixed up, just grind to a halt and, in Sir David’s words: ‘Something truly extraordinary happens.’
At this point I’m on the edge of my fucking seat, almost collapsing onto the floor, jaw hanging open. What? WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN?! ARE THE FALSE KILLERS GONNA WHIP OUT THEIR SWITCHBLADES?! IS A BUNCH OF HUMPBACK WHALES GONNA ARRIVE AND BREAK THE FIGHT UP?!
Nope. None of that.
‘The dolphins turn, as if to greet their pursuers.’
The water explodes with singing and squeaking and chattering.
‘They seem to change their calls. Could it be that they’re attempting to communicate?’
No, David. No it fucking couldn’t. We’ve already had a fish using tools and another fish calculating the air speed velocity of an unladen tern in order to snatch it out of the air. I WON’T ALLOW INTER-SPECIES COMMUNICATION ON TOP OF THAT!
‘Scientists studying this annual encounter now think that individuals may recognise one another. Almost unbelievably, it seems that these different species appear to be old friends.’
‘Together they’re gathering as one unified army, up to a thousand strong. This formidable hunting party now harvests the riches that come with New Zealand’s summer.’
Alright, sure, whatever, David. I give up. I’m into whatever trippy new knowledge you wanna drop from now on. No resistance.
So off we go to Japan, where there is a type of wrasse that looks like I just accidentally opened my front-facing camera:
That, incidentally, is the bloke wrasse. Here he is next to one of the females of his species:
Oof. Poor woman.
‘And he is ready to breed!’
There’s a certain glee with which David Attenborough always says ‘And he is ready to breed!’ or a variation thereof. I can’t put my finger on it, but it always sounds like naughty old Dave lives for this shit.
Anyway this ugly-as-fuck wrasse starts getting down and dirty, flapping about and jizzing all over the place, and then we cut to an older lass wrasse.
‘But females of over 10 years old take little notice of his advances.’
It tickles me that a metre-long ugly fish’s jizz-spurting escapades can be referred to as ‘advances’. This is as good as TV gets.
But here we get to the main event:
So the old ladies fuck off while the youth get down to it. They find themselves nice crevices in the coral and whatnot and they settle down. But not to Netflix and an early night like their boring human counterparts, no. Oh no no no.
Their refuge has a far more…progressive?…purpose.
‘When any large female reaches a critical body size, she can begin a dramatic transformation.’
And then it’s all Frankenstein spooky music and half-lit shots of the lass wrasse in her lair…
‘Over just a few months, particular enzymes inside her body cease to work, and male hormones start to circulate…’
‘As time passes, her head expands, and her chin gets longer. A she…
…has changed into a he!’
Even a Japanese wrasse ain’t got no time for your normative gender bullshit! Male, female, in-between, it’s all fluid motherfuckers!
What I love more than anything else though is the reactions of the fish nearby, who are all like:
‘Well fuck me ol’ boots, are you seeing what I’m seeing Jeff?! That lady fish’s done become a bloke fish!’
‘And with this comes a change in temperament. The old male who ruled all the females here is challenged to a face-off!’
So let me get this straight. Let’s just take a minute here to pause and sum up.
The lass wrasse, who presumably had plenty of babies while younger, eventually aged as the laws of physics dictate. When she got old enough that the horny males were no longer interested, she retreated to a dark cave. There, over the course of a few months, she focused in on herself, and basically willed her biology into suppressing some hormones and secreting others, so that she may become a male. Then she left her transformation chamber and went straight up to the biggest male without even pausing for a snack or anything and said, ‘Oi. Dickhead. You, me. Now.’
‘The territory has a new ruler.’
Fight over and lost, the old big shot slinks away to lick his wounds in some red—-
—while the new bossman struts his stuff and courts the for-now-ladies.
Nature, you really are something.
Then after the he-wrasse-she-wrasse drama we head to the arctic waters, where a pod of orca show up to tail-whip a prey ball of fish, stunning their victims before gobbling them up at their leisure. With cameras somehow attached to the top of some of the orca by the way! BBC Natural History Team just showing off at this point.
And then colossal motherfucking Humpbacks showing up in the same bit of water as the orca to feed on the same fish schools as them and to make the killer whales look like guppies by comparison.
Whales do something to me, man. Something about their incomprehensible size, their lurking about in the infinitely large and unknowable habitats of the oceans, and their massive intelligence. I’m just in awe of them. It’s like that bit from The Jungle Book, where all the creatures of the forest basically worship the elephants. I feel that way about whales. They’re just…
Well, they’re something akin to gods basically innit?