Bridging the Ontological Gap: The Appeal to Emotion in the BBC's 'Blue Planet II'

(Still from Blue Planet II official trailer)

To get people to care about the planet they must feel a connection to it. In this, the BBC Blue Planet series succeeds.

Blue Planet II
David Attenborough

BBC Earth

06 Mar 2018


We are, each and every one of us, eco-systems teeming with life. The human body contains approximately 100 trillion cells but only roughly ten percent of those cells are human. The remainder belong to bacteria and other microorganisms that make our bodies their home. As anyone who has had a bad bowel reaction to taking antibiotics knows, we rely upon certain of those microorganisms to function properly. We would not be what we are without the living beings that inhabit us. Our status as a human being depends upon our status as living environments.

Moreover, we are environments within an environment of our own. We are, of course, part of a larger world, a great deal of which we will never directly experience. And yet, as we know from the increasingly fraught realm of climate science, we do directly experience the effects of the damages and changes undergone by those corners of the world hidden from our immediate purview. Regardless of your political beliefs pertaining to the ultimate causes of climate change, the fact of it is irrefutable. Our lives are directly impacted (and indeed imperiled) by the unseen shifts in viability experienced by the far reaches of the earth. Just as our health as a living entity relies upon the vitality of the microbes residing within us, the earth's health depends upon the myriad vicissitudes of the organisms living within it.

This realization is hard-won and rather difficult to retain. We easily forget (perhaps endeavor to forget) that we are ourselves walking environments. We prefer to think of ourselves as singular individuals with sovereignty over what we too often regard as our domain. But the earth is our domain no more than we are the domain of the bacteria living in our intestines. If we are to live properly in the world we have to feel connected to it, not in the manner of dominion but rather as a humble part of the earth's functioning—and sadly, perhaps one of the more otiose parts of that eco-system. While we are learning that the earth doesn't function all that well without the coral reefs or the ice glaciers, one senses that it would function just as well if not better without us.

This puts us in a rather odd position. We are, without exaggeration, a plague upon the earth. We imperil it and portend its destruction; we are its most invasive species and as is the case with all invasive species, we crowd out the competition, in part, simply through our profusion. If we consider it our birthright to occupy the earth as we see fit then that is an inheritance that relegates the earth to a moribund status. Our living environment is condemned to become a fetid corpse.

But it need not be so. Unlike the other species on this planet, we have the capacity to assess our impact on the environment and counteract the deleterious effects we produce. It is troubling and ultimately not that productive to view oneself as a plague. If that is the case, all one can in good conscience hope for is one's demise. If, however, we trade in dominion for stewardship, we can be of use to the planet that serves as our host and the source of our security and vitality. Fostering the desire to accomplish the reclamation of the earth requires a felt connection to the problem. As long as we can imagine ourselves as set aside from the world (whether the argument stems from the notion that we hold dominion over it or that we are somehow beyond the level the ontology of our animality), no progress is made.

There are, typically and broadly speaking, two routes toward convincing people to work toward a common good: either demonstrate logically the necessity of the endeavor or make an emotional appeal that bypasses our ingrown cynicism. The former approach tends to fall short of its goal. It is in our rational best interest to tend to our environment but the immediacy of the everyday problems we face in life all-too-often obfuscate our larger environmental obligations, which seem open to deferment in comparison to mortgages, debt, unemployment, illness, and war. Moreover, as strict as we might believe proper logic to be, when it comes to human comportment logical argumentation proves to be all-too-pliant. Reason often devolves into rationalization, immediate self-interest almost always trumps long-range planning, and desire outweighs responsibility.

Now, I am the last person to dismiss logic as the proper means of conducting debate. Far too often in political discourse these days (and throughout history, to be fair) clear argumentation is sacrificed on the altar of emotion. People often rail against social reform or clamor for radical overhaul on the basis of what they feel might be the case rather than examining the actual effects of political upheaval or of maintaining the status quo. The problem is that logic doesn't establish fact; it simply works with fact in order to draw rigorous conclusions. If the human impact on climate change is not accepted as a fact (if, as some proclaim, it is merely an unfounded hypothesis), then logic doesn't even come into contention. Furthermore, in political matters (and at this point it should be clear that climate change is a highly political and politicized issue) logic has no purchase unless people are motivated by an issue and that requires some kind of connection to it. This is where the emotional element comes into play. This is not a cynical claim—an obvious enough objection given the old warning against allowing emotion to override reason—but rather it merely points to a common-sense observation: for a problem to show up for us at all as a problem, we have to care about the issues linked to that problem.

The BBC Natural History Unit has, over the course of the past several decades, made something of an art form out of the emotional appeal. Its beautifully produced, visually stunning nature documentary series have set the standard for what one expects of such films. Indeed, the BBC's decision to provide recently released "sequels" to two of its most renowned works, Planet Earth and Blue Planet, has afforded its producers the opportunity not only to outdo those earlier series but also to reach what must be regarded as a summit for films of this genre. Blue Planet II, which premiered in October 2017 and is now being released on DVD and Blu-ray, is event television at its finest. Buttressed by over a decade of development in technology and scientific knowledge, Blue Planet II takes viewers deeper (in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the word) than its predecessor, explores previously undocumented species and behaviors, and takes a stronger stand on human culpability in the potentially disastrous state of the earth than any of its previous films.

Not surprisingly, that stand emerges most clearly in the last of the seven episodes, entitled "Our Blue Planet". The use of the possessive in the title is clearly deliberate. This series wants viewers actively engaged in thinking about and ultimately healing our damaged planet. But even here, the series refrains from casting blame or getting mired in lament. There is no discussion of extinction, no pointing the finger at specific governments or policies or corporations, no blunt reminders of the pervading indifference of the majority of the populace. Rather, the focus remains on success stories and how we might further pursue such endeavors.

We meet a remarkable man in the Caribbean, Len Peters, who took it upon himself to develop ways to protect the giant leatherback turtles who lay their eggs on local beaches and were often killed for their meat while doing so, bringing them to the brink of extinction. Peters is well-positioned to understand the problem. Raised in Trinidad, he is well aware of the prevalence and pervasiveness of turtle meat; but he soon learned that the supply would run out if the turtles were not offered some protection. Realizing that the best way to ensure the safety of the turtles was to directly involve the citizenry, Peters started a business in which locals would serve as guides to tourists eager to snap a photograph of a mother turtle laying her eggs.

We learn that in Norway, herring fishing was so intensive that the population was nearly wiped out, which would have equally devastated the orcas and the humpback whales. But once the government passed legislation limiting the exploitation of the fishery the herring bounced back as did the orca population. We see impressive footage of orcas as they slap passing herring with their tails to kill them. Moreover, the orcas exploit the fishermen's nets for an easy meal as well. Knowing that a certain small percentage of herring are able to wriggle free of the net's clasp, the orca wait nearby and gobble up the disoriented fish as they make their escape. As one scientist points out, the whales consume roughly on percent of the herring population while human consumption amounts to roughly ten percent. When humans avoid over-exploitation, and the herring population is allowed to remain vital and healthy, there is food for all.

Of course, a large portion of the episode is dedicated to the ravages imposed by human pollution but even here surprises abound. The effects of pollution are just as deadly when they are indirect. Plankton eat small particles of plastic containing toxins. Fish eat the plankton and dolphins eat the fish. If enough toxic material builds up in the system of a female dolphin, her milk can become poisonous to her offspring. So, a dolphin who has had no direct contact with the plastics of human waste can nevertheless perish from its effects.

(Still from Blue Planet II official trailer)

An even more surprising (at least to me) form of pollution impacts the clownfish who played such a large role in the third episode of the series, "Coral Reefs". In that earlier episode, a family of saddleback clownfish took advantage of a large carpet anemone that is poisonous to most of the reef's population but not to the clownfish. The family hides within its folds and pays the anemone back by keeping his body free from debris—basically vacuuming the carpet. Moreover, the male must find a safe place for the female to lay her eggs; those eggs can find no purchase on the body of the anemone itself. Therefore, the male must drag some sturdy item over to the safety of the anemone where the eggs can be stored. He eventually manages to push and shove a part of a coconut shell into place.

These fish continually grunt in order to communicate; indeed, they are in constant communication, perhaps the most loquacious fish imaginable. What we don't learn until the final episode, however, is that their form of communication is a new object of scientific study and a new source of concern. Fish employ sounds of great variety to attract mates, to ward off attacks, and simply to chatter. The clownfish is thus not an anomaly, just particularly voluble. So, we return to our family and learn that scientists are beginning to discern elements of their verbalization. The scientist constructs a fake coral trout to threaten the clownfish; they react with deep, guttural alarm calls in an effort to frighten the trout away. Meanwhile the children make a softer popping sound to assure the parents that they are still safe. But then a disturbing thing occurs. A large boat passes overhead and the clownfish, still in the proximity of the illusory threat, cease their vocalizations. Because they cannot be heard over the din of the boat's engine, they simply give up. With communication disrupted, their safety is compromised.

While noise pollution is a familiar woe of modern life, I would imagine we seldom think of its impact upon such places as a coral reef. But since navigation, mating, and safety all depend upon the fish's ability to hear, noise pollution is a serious threat to their existence. The good news, and Blue Planet II really focuses on what can be done rather than what has been lost, is that noise pollution in the coral reefs can be easily addressed at minimal cost. Indeed, one gathers from Blue Planet II that many of the ills assailing our planet could begin to be relieved through a relatively minor effort. Of course, major upheavals are also required (as in the prevalence of plastic waste set out into the environment) but more headway than one might imagine can be made through simple adjustments to local outlook (as in the case of the turtles), an awareness of a previously unimagined problem (as in the noise pollution of the coral reef), or an adjustment to business models (as in the herring population in Norway). Perhaps there is a Pollyanna-ish hue to such optimism but that is infinitely preferable to indifference, lack of effort, or pure denial.

The majority of the series, six of its seven episodes, refer only occasionally to the troubled environment—although I think it is notable that they don't reserve all mention of it for the finalé (indeedm one of the most moving scenes—a pilot whale mother refusing to let go of the corpse of her child who died from exposure to pollution—appears in the fourth episode, "The Big Blue"). Instead the focus here is on connecting viewers to the lives of the often-strange creatures that dwell in or near the planet's seas. If even the seventh episode refrains from didacticism, the others eschew it almost completely. The series, in the tradition of earlier BBC efforts, is less about the dissemination of information regarding the creatures it follows than providing a kind of focused experience of them. Each episode is constructed from a collection of vignettes that explore a specific locale or investigate an isolated species in its interactions with others, in its attempts to eat, mate, and maintain safety—in short, in its efforts to survive.

Rather than provide any semblance of a lecture, each vignette sets forth its material in a visceral, engaging manner that delights the eye. The series banks on the hope that the emotional connection is what will lead to the pursuit of knowledge and awareness—knowledge that would have to be attained outside of the scope of the series, for the most part. At times, it can feel as though we are provided with a relative dearth of information in exchange for a wealth of rich visual imagery and a sweeping panorama of outlandish activity. Even the names of certain animals go by so quickly as to be easily missed. And yet, the producers of Blue Planet II have clearly engineered a means to lead viewers to feel transported into an alien realm that is nonetheless all-too-familiar. This is accomplished, by and large, by framing these vignettes in recognizable genres.

There is the ubiquitous chase scene (at least one per episode, including the last) where at least one of the pursued gets away, providing cathartic release and reassurance that even in the most threatening of situations, survival is possible. A notable example of the chase scene here (although for a sheer heart-pumping adrenaline rush, nothing can top the scene in Planet Earth II in which a newly born marine iguana narrowly outruns a ravenous posse of snakes) is in the penultimate episode, "Coasts", where we find a group of crabs doing everything possible to avoid slipping into the water as they hop from rock to rock in order to get to their feeding grounds. The object of their fear is the moray eel. Crabs are not the most affecting creatures and are rather difficult to anthropomorphize but that is precisely what Blue Planet II manages to do. To accomplish this, the series relies upon all of the clichés of the genre. The eel first appears as a shock effect. A crab rests on a rock, peering down into the water beneath. We look up at it from below the water's surface unaware that we are occupying the space of a predator. Cut to a camera further away and from an angle slightly above the scene and the eel irrupts from the water, clutching the crab in its maw.

After the sudden impact of the death blow, the camera shifts to a slower speed and we register the shock as the eel slips back into the water. The remainder of the vignette employs reverse shots to reinforce the standoff between predator and prey. Closeups of the crabs' eyes invite our sympathy and our connection to their plight. Wary of danger, the crabs scan the water that stretches before them and we can't help but read despair in their gaze. The eel even reveals its ability to travel short distances on land, thus cutting off the progress of the group at every turn. To make matters worse, an octopus joins the hunt, flopping its way amidst the craggy rocks in strong contrast to the smoother undulations of the eel. With so much treachery afoot (or asea), you can't help but pull for the crab. Inevitably, we are shown a few successful crabs who escape their demise and attain their goals as the narrator, the acclaimed David Attenborough, gamely intones "Made it!"

(Still from Blue Planet II official trailer)

Another genre referenced by the vignettes is the survival film. The second episode of the series, "The Deep", concerned as it is with creatures who live in the extreme conditions provided by the depths of the ocean, is replete with such scenes. The episode takes us all the way down to the sea floor where a mere one percent of the biological material settles that otherwise descends through the upper layers of the ocean and feeds innumerable inhabitants. Here that one percent creates a muddy surface that strongly resembles an arid desert. Few creatures live here but it is here that the sea toad resides. It has long since exchanged its fins for a rudimentary set of feet, and it meanders about the sea floor in search of prey. Life here is often desperate but occasionally nature offers a boon. In this moment, that boon takes the shape of a 30-ton whale carcass that attracts everything from ravenous six-gill sharks (often only eating one substantial meal in an entire year, who create a feeding frenzy when they release the whale's blood into the water) to the clean-up team formed by spider and rock crabs along with an assortment of other scavengers, who attract their own predators. Finally, even the bones become sustenance for a host of the appropriately named zombie worms. They inject the bones with acid and bore their way to the modest stores of fat that reside within.

The love scene is another timeworn framework for several of the vignettes and there are plenty to choose from in Blue Planet II. A particularly alluring example is found in episode 5, "Green Seas", in the form of the psychedelic giant cuttlefish. These strange creatures put on a remarkable multi-colored display that shimmers across the surface of their skins. The largest cuttlefish jealously guards the females he feels belong to him. So when an amorous but relatively diminutive male happens upon the scene, he is forced to adopt a deceitful stratagem. He changes his colors to appear to be a female. He is then able to sidestep the giant and mate with one of the members of the giant's harem. More prevalent in Blue Planet II is the family drama, examples of which were raised above with the clownfish and pilot whales.

Finally, Blue Planet II employs the hallmarks of surrealism in some of its most memorable vignettes. The most stunning example of this also derives from "The Deep" episode. Deep within the Gulf of Mexico, eruptions at the sea floor release super salty brine, which is five times heavier than sea water. The brine creates a lake at the bottom of the sea that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the environment. Several species live on its shores: mussels, lobsters, shrimp. But almost nothing can penetrate into the brine. The exception is found in the cutthroat eel. It occasionally dips below the surface of the lake, diving into the brine. But an extended stay there can prove fatal. Upon reemergence, the eels twist themselves into bizarre knots, succumbing to what appear to be epileptic fits and painful contortions while they are in the throes of toxic shock. If an animal remains too long in the brine, it becomes embalmed and its corpse lingers on the shore, a reminder of the dangers residing in the depths.

These genres and their recognizable clichés attempt to bridge the gap a viewer might naturally feel between herself and the strange cuttlefish or the uncharismatic (in most situations) crab. The semiotics of the camera (the swift panning shots, reverse shots, use of slow motion for dramatic effect, etc.), the Hans Zimmer score (a little on-the-nose for my taste but expertly crafted), and the assured narration by Attenborough all contribute to the sense that these are deeply lived experiences not altogether different from the lives we lead. We too find ourselves in threatening situations, seek to enchant potential mates, long to accomplish goals, and struggle to maintain our existences. Blue Planet II suggests that if we are to save the planet—or more modestly, just stop making matters endlessly worse—the first step is to identify with it.

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