[16 March 2012]
In the far polar reaches of the world, glaciers crawl forward with incremental inevitability, carving out entire landscapes. Frozen waterfalls awaken after a long silence, their thaw releasing a torrent of river water. Polar bear cubs frolic on a seemingly infinite sheet of white snow. Blubbery skin ripples as male elephant seals battle for dominion over a beach harem. A pack of wolves assaults enormous bison. Penguins dart out of the Antarctic waters and waddle comically across ice packs. And you’re cozy and warm on your couch, watching it all in glorious detail.
Frozen Planet is the latest visual feast from the same BBC Natural History Unit documentary team that produced the HDTV retail display favorites Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and Life. As with those previous series, the version of Frozen Planet airing on Discovery Channel starting 18 March has been cut down to an American broadcast television length of 45-ish minutes. Additionally, the dulcet tones of esteemed nature documentary narrator Sir David Attenborough have been replaced by the flat grandiosity of Alec Baldwin, who for all his multiple decades of professional achievement surely cannot be the Stateside voice-over equivalent of Attenborough.
Discovery’s Frozen Planet is therefore an inherently compromised product, but if all compromises remained this spectacular, the term might not retain its negative connotations. Certainly, the thematic and narrative underpinnings of these mega-documentaries of the BBC pedigree are not particularly cutting-edge. Wild animal behavior is, after all, relatively circumscribed, limited to the mainstays of acquiring sustenance, mating, and rearing the offspring that result.
Even if the life-and-death cycle of the vignettes that constitute the program trends towards the repetitive, the seasonal breakdown of the core episodes allows for some rudimentary serial storytelling. The travails of a mother polar bear and her growing cubs are followed through spring, summer, and beyond, and time-lapse cameras demonstrate the advance of the polar year from constant sunlight through constant dark and back again.
But like the previous installments of this sort of series, Frozen Planet grasps viewer attention most tightly with its astounding imagery and daring pursuit of surprising behaviors. High-speed cameras show graceful slow-motion shots of emperor penguins bursting from the icy water and bull muskoxen ramming into each other. An extraordinary caterpillar freezes solid and then thaws for no less than 14 winters in succession before emerging from its chrysalis as a fluttering moth. Caribou slip and slide on icy ponds like beginner skaters. Most amusingly, pods of clever hunting orcas swim in formation to create waves large enough to tip luxuriating seals off of ice floes. When a wave fails to dislodge one seal from its icy perch, the carnivorous whales use the tips of their noses to turn its tiny berg turtle and dump their quarry into the drink.
The balance of microcosmic delights and macrocosmic spectacle gives Frozen Planet a superior appeal in the nature documentary genre. Still, the success of the Planet programs has as much if not more to do with advances in both camera technology and high-definition television than it does with any trailblazing vision on the part of the production’s numerous directors and cinematographers. This is particularly true of Frozen Planet, which recycles some material from previous films from under the same umbrella (I’m pretty sure those duck-hunting wolves were in Life) as well as covering territory very well-trodden by other films. Penguins are irresistible subjects, granted, but wasn’t every angle of the emperors’ remarkable ordeal covered in detail by March of the Penguins?
Frozen Planet’s less traditional later parts exhibit precisely what it has to contribute to a mostly moribund documentary form. The “Making Of” specials have become a highlight of these programs, breaking the fourth wall that is ever invisible and unacknowledged in lesser nature films. The behind-the-scenes dramas and difficulties behind these visuals are only amplified by the extreme climates in which this particular series was shot.
Most vitally, Frozen Planet’s final and most controversial episode acknowledges the elephant in the room of polar science: climate change and the alarming reduction of the ice caps and glaciers. “On Thin Ice” was initially not due to be broadcast by Discovery in the United States, despite being the obvious editorial conclusion to the series during its original British broadcast run. Political timidity was eventually overcome, and American viewers will see the episode on Discovery after all, with Attenborough’s original narration no less. Whether due to the network’s about-face concerning its broadcast or to his well-publicized progressive leanings, Baldwin will not be lending his vocal chords to gems like “Summer waits for no bear” in this episode at least.
For a series that tends to lose itself in its considerable aesthetic value and its appreciation of the natural world’s alterity, offering up a striking visual document of climate change, accompanied by elaboration from an authoritative British-accented voice, is an important journalistic service. Especially when faced with the anti-scientific fabulism of climate science skeptics in America, Frozen Planet could prove to be more than just a marvelously pretty television distraction. It can also be an influential artistic and rational voice in a continuing debate over our current society’s environmental legacy.