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Here’s an unpopular opinion for you: Dynasties is the worst documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough in an entire generation.
Before you gasp in despair, groan at the assumed contrary nature of young snowflake journalists today, and start trolling me on Twitter as an animal-hating hack, let me explain.
I have been mildly obsessed with David Attenborough since I was about four years old when I first saw one of his documentaries on BBC Two.
It was called The Secret Life of Seahorses:
In The Secret life of Seahorses, released in 1996, Attenborough narrated the first seahorse mating ritual ever caught on camera; a rare and unique moment. I was captivated.
At the age of five, our Year 1 class at school was tasked with writing to our heroes.
As my friends penned love letters to Britney Spears and David Beckham, the David I desired to share my admiration for was a man with notably different talents; at the time, a silver-haired septuagenarian who loved nothing more than meeting an orangutan.
He’s the guy who inspired me to spend a fortune of my parent’s money on a subscription to BBC Wildlife magazine and hours of my time lovingly organising the accompanying Filofax.
In hindsight, I wish I’d known an aptitude for science was necessary to become a zoologist, because I may have saved myself some time, some dreams, and a bucket load of aspiration which I could’ve channeled into my career as a journalist who writes about people who were good at science at school and now get to study animals for a living.
By the time I received my first barely-passing grade in Biology in Year 9 I had resigned myself to learning about Planet Earth from the sofa.
For this reason, I came to see Sir Dave as a kind of surrogate teacher and his documentaries as mini classes about Mother Nature. I’m by no means alone.
Sir David Frederick Attenborough, OM, CH, CVO, CBE, FRS, FLS, FZS, FSA, who has been justly honoured with so many accolades his name is followed by half the alphabet, has educated and entertained this country for over seven decades.
Over those seventy years, his track record has become pretty hard to beat:
Indeed, the West London-born broadcaster remains the only person in television history to win BAFTAs for programmes aired in black and white, colour, HD, and 3D.
To use the BBC‘s horribly trite term, he nails ‘edutainment’, which brings me to my one complaint regarding Dynasties – an otherwise epic piece of television.
I called it upon seeing the teaser trailer:
Dynasties is disappointing to me for one reason, and one reason alone. The series is focussed – albeit in never-before-seen intimate detail – on the world’s most celebrated species.
These five species are some of the most photographed, most filmed, and most seen species to roam Planet Earth, in no small part because they’re awesome. But watching the trailer felt like deja vu of every other wildlife documentary I’d seen in the past decade, just on HD steroids.
The official first look trailer didn’t offer much more to quash my fears:
After the first three episodes, the worst has happened: I simply haven’t learned anything new about any one of the animals which have so far featured in the series.
The production team, narrated by Attenborough, have so far followed the reproductive plights and power plays of chimpanzees, Emperor penguins, and lions as they fight for their own survival and for the future of their dynasties.
While it was incredibly easy to become attached to the now-deceased alpha chimp David in episode one, with all those artfully shot portrait-style close-ups, I felt more like I was watching a Shakespearian drama than a documentary.
It was only after the credits rolled that I realised I hadn’t really taken anything away from Dynasties apart from an irrational hatred of anyone by the names of Jumkin and Luthor.
The following week I dutifully tuned in to watch as Emperor penguin parents prepared for the arrival of their young, practising TLC on little balls of snow. Cue the warm fuzzy feelings befitting a Sunday night in.
The hour-long edit turned dark as countless baby penguins froze to death on the Artic tundra, while their grieving parents fought over kidnapped chicks who survived the harsh winters.
It was heart-wrenching TV and tears were shed, I’m not ashamed to say. But by the end of the show, I was left a little empty – the kind of catharsis you get after watching a rom-com you suspect has lost you a few brain cells.
Rather than coming away feeling full of new knowledge, I just felt a bit exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster, having already seen the mating rituals and the hardships these creatures go through numerous times on the telly before.
But everyone at work the next day was talking about how amazing the episode was, so I let go of the nagging feeling and cooed along over the fluffy baby birds.
It was after watching last night’s episode about the lions that it struck me.
— BBC Earth (@BBCEarth) November 19, 2018
Dynasties has been designed for a modern audience which watches along while checking Twitter, the instantaneous platform on which people were already setting up accounts in the name of David the chimpanzee before the first episode had drawn to a finish.
On social media, everything works in soundbites. If you’ve ever been privy to a Twitter debate, you’ll know emotion reigns King of the pixelated jungle out there, logic and reason are tossed on the trash heap like dead baby penguins.
It seems the people putting together the idea for Dynasties picked the most popular animals – the lowest common denominators of popularity guaranteed to hike up ratings – and opted to anthropomorphise them in fine detail in order to universally tug on the collective heartstrings of a nation.
The BBC‘s director of content Charlotte Moore said:
The wonderful David Attenborough will inspire audiences once again when he brings the natural world to life on BBC One with Dynasties.
Four years in the making, capturing extraordinary family dynamics and behaviour, I hope these intimate animal dramas will connect with audiences just as Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II did.
Only, with just two episodes of five remaining, I’m not sure Dynasties is a patch on Blue Planet II or Planet Earth II.
Blue Planet II taught us tusk fish can use tools to break open clams, sea lions hunt tuna in packs, the female Kobudai fish can actually metamorphose into a male to face-off for alpha status, and climate change is causing coral reefs to be bleached by the sun.
Planet Earth II taught us sloths can swim and confirmed bears like Baloo from The Jungle Book actually do use trees to scratch their itchy backs. It showed us how the rarest of rare snow leopards survive the freezing cold temperatures in the Himalayas.
And who could forget the Iguana and the Snakes?
All the while, it was just as beautifully-captured and enthralling as Dynasties. Attenborough was such a big fan, he said he’d like to narrate a third series of Planet Earth and Blue Planet in the next decade when he’s 100 years old.
In the early years, he shied away from the camera – after a senior told him his teeth were too big – but in 1954, he was enlisted as the last-minute presenter on Zoo Quest.
He was – and is – a natural.
After founding the corporation’s Travel and Exploration Unit, Attenborough helped mould the channel as Controller for BBC Two in 1965, which had struggled to capture the public’s imagination due to a lack of diverse programming.
Inevitably, he was promoted to Director of Programs across BBC One and BBC Two, and was put forward as a potential Director-General.
With no desire to sit in front of spreadsheets, the wild-at-heart presenter quickly returned to his rightful place in front of the lens. Herein Life began.
Attenborough and his team gained the trust of scientists worldwide, including Diane Fossey, who gave them previously unseen access to her research group of mountain gorillas, and gave viewers at home an incomparable insight into the wondrous world of creature-kind.
Attenborough’s programmes have always been at the heart of TV innovation, benefiting from the perpetual progression of camera technology as well as his deep understanding of wildlife.
Life on Earth was quickly followed by The Living Planet, as well as the Peabody award-winning The Life of Birds and The Life of Mammals, which was able to use low-light technology to film nocturnal beings for the first time.
Equally, The Secret Life of Plants used new forms of time-lapse photography to show the growth of flora.
Life in the Undergrowth also achieved a first, when micro technology allowed audiences to watch, in great definition, the tiny creatures which walk below our feet every day.
When Life in Cold Blood was broadcast in 2008, completing the Life series, Attenborough said:
These programmes tell a particular story and I’m sure others will come along and tell it much better than I did, but I do hope that if people watch it in 50 years’ time, it will still have something to say about the world we live in.
It did and still does. I do wonder if Dynasties will have the same impact, longterm.
I also wonder whether Attenborough – the innovator and risk-taker who commissioned The Old Great Whistle Test and Monty Python for BBC Two all those years ago – would call it his best, most ground-breaking work.
Planet Earth and Blue Planet, on the other hand, was ground-breaking in every sense, offering 3D, high-definition perspectives into a world far beyond the human eye, breaking viewing records while doing so.
It had the trifecta: Beautifully-shot, informative and emotive stories, but one aspect was more important than the rest, learning something new about our world.
It marked a first for factual programming, when it spawned a thousand millennial memes and GIFs, truly bringing natural biology into the realms of pop culture.
But has the desire to accommodate our short attention spans and fondness for cute TV fodder gone too far with Dynasties?
— BBC Earth (@BBCEarth) November 24, 2018
Has the BBC tried to go too viral by stripping back the usual multi-species narratives synonymous with a Sir Dave documentary in favour of storytelling? Has it lost some of the informative, enthralling nature of other docs like it?
Well, there’s no doubt it’s successful. But even David himself thought the idea was ‘bonkers’ in its initiation.
You can watch him talk through the Dynasties concept in the video below:
Meanwhile, Netflix has enlisted David to narrate their first foray into producing a wildlife original documentary.
Between the shots of Narwhales and Bison and exotic tree frogs, this looks more like it; I’m hoping for a refresher course on the many different, sometimes forgotten, species with which we share Our Planet.
You can watch the first look trailer below:
In the interest of fairness, though, it’s all to play for with the next and final two episodes of Dynasties, featuring tigers and painted wolves. Let’s hope the episodes bring something new to the table so my colleagues can stop criticising me for being contrary.
Dynasties airs Sunday at 8.30pm on BBC One.
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