Within the BBC’s gorgeous documentary series, “Planet Earth II,” there are plenty of new elements to admire — and the show is eager to share. Narrator David Attenborough, sitting in a hot air balloon above snow-drenched mountaintops, checks off each general advancement during the pilot:
- The filmmakers were able to get incredibly close to each animal thanks to innovative remote cameras.
- Further advancements in technology also meant discovering previously unobtainable “wildlife dramas.”
- We can see, hear, and admire these dramas better than ever, with clearer, brighter, and more comprehensive photography than has been possible prior to this.
Better yet, the progress Attenborough heartily expounds is more than evident on screen. Covering islands, mountains, jungles, deserts, grasslands, and cities, “Planet Earth II” literally covers a lot of ground in its seven episodes (the final episode is a “making of”), always with an eye toward beauty and our quickly changing environments. Impossible sights are enticingly strung together, forming stories like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
Except, of course, we have. In title and execution, “Planet Earth” is a sequel, and thus it follows established patterns from the original 2006 series. Attenborough’s narration, a gift to be treasured, guides us through each locale, telling tales both unbearably cute and unnervingly painful. The animals, locations, and information may be fresh, but the format is tried-and-true, meaning this event series is following in the footsteps of other revival shows like “Fuller House,” “Gilmore Girls,” “24,” and “Twin Peaks”: It’s mining viewers’ nostalgia.
While that may be a slight for less purposeful shows, the favored practice of every studio from Disney (a live-action “Beauty and the Beast” hits March 17) to Netflix (the “Stranger Things” kids are Ghostbusters!) is used here for vital cause: to save our planet.
You see, we left off one more attribute listed by Attenborough to open the season. His last reason for revisiting the “Planet Earth” series was simply that our planet has changed:
“Never have those wildernesses been as fragile and precious as they are today,” Attenborough says. “At this crucial time, we will journey to every corner of the globe to explore the treasures of our living planet, and reveal the extreme lengths animals go to to survive.”
The environmental advocated and BAFTA award-winning broadcaster doesn’t have to mention politics to get his point across. The Earth is in trouble, and we need to save it. What better reason could he give for releasing another “Planet Earth” season right now, and what better reasons could he provide for protecting our ecosystem than six spectacular hours spent admiring it?
In the past, “Planet Earth” balanced the brutalities of nature with the beauty within it. That meant showing animals doing whatever they had to do to survive…or fall prey in the process. Moments like these still pop up, and this devout pig enthusiast may never recover from a particularly wrenching scene in Episode 6. But the dynamic has shifted: We’re not just seeing how specific animals survive, but being coaxed into understanding how entire environments are at risk.
Between the highs and lows of inspiring and apoplectic animal videos lies a knowing commentary on humanity, and what role humans play in preserving or destroying worlds well out of eyesight. As we shoot across the globe seeing things never before seen, Attenborough and the producers behind “Planet Earth” make sure to connect eye-opening spectacles to eye-opening facts. While never overbearing — this doesn’t feel like a science lesson — statistics, observations, and research are imparted on the viewer. Eventually, everyone should make the connection: “But if temperatures in the Himalayas are increasing, what will happen to those exquisite snow leopards?”
It would have been easy for a “Planet Earth” sequel to become a bit too full of itself. With a grandiose score from the master of overbearing accompaniments Hans Zimmer (who handled the main theme, while Jasha Klebe and Jacob Shea shouldered the majority), a massive undertaking worthy of its standalone “making of” episode, and a life-or-death message for literally everyone on the planet, these episodes could have been drained of their fun for the sake of substance. (Even the title uses the roman numeral “II” instead of the traditional No. 2.)
Instead, “Planet Earth” knows better than to emphasize what divides us. It’s here to bring us together in veneration of our shared world, and damn if it doesn’t do just that throughout its seven hours. Television sports its fair share of important, engaging entertainment. But “Planet Earth II” might be the only show that checks both boxes for everyone: It’s the revival we want and the revival we need.
“Planet Earth II” premieres Saturday, February 18 at 9 p.m. on BBC America. New episodes will also be simulcast on AMC and SundanceTV.