Dynasties, a captivating five-part nature documentary with David Attenborough, is one of the best family dramas on TV.
Even the adorable penguins trooping across the sea ice to breed are not to be messed with. A female penguin, whose baby has died, advances on a happy couple to steal their new chick. She means business. She wins. The penguin couple look sad. This is exactly why I don’t normally watch natural-history programmes. The world’s going to hell in a reusable hemp shopping bag. Who needs to lie awake fretting about the penguin chick that gets abandoned in a icy gully in Antarctica so its mother can save herself by clambering out unencumbered? There’s the young lion in Kenya who dies slowly after he eats bait poisoned by farmers. Bring tissues.
Fortunately, the series doesn’t linger too long on the brutality of existence, human or animal. It’s mostly about life getting on with the complicated business of ensuring the survival of the genetic line. Unlike his esteemed namesake narrating the proceedings, David, alpha chimp, has to fight for his spot as respected elder of his troop. He cuts an increasingly isolated, Lear-like figure, brooding over a shrinking habitat in Senegal. A beating from rivals leaves him torn, minus fingers, moribund. Incredibly, he lives to reassert his authority, at least for a while.
Watching alliances form, coups plotted and displays of submission and aggression is to be reminded of the minuscule difference, genetically, between us and them. You could draw parallels to the powerful players of our times but it would be too depressing. Suffice to say, this episode explains a lot.
Dynasties is evidence that penguins do it tough. See a rolling maul of aquatic flightless birds huddling against a storm, jockeying for a position that means the difference between life and death. That’s even before rising sea temperatures are factored in.
Of course, the series is flawlessly filmed and edited, with an apt-but-unobtrusive soundtrack ranging from stirring to ominous to aw, shucks. It pays to watch the “on location” codas, particularly if you have been shouting, “For the love of God, help them!” at the screen as calamity looms. It turns out the film crew will occasionally intervene, though not in the way Disney did in the 50s, when allegedly suicidal lemmings were herded off a cliff in an infamous wildlife documentary, a scene that scarred me for life. Here they merely cut a few steps in the ice so the trapped penguins can escape the gully. As the birds troop out, you want to cheer. And in Kenya there are emergency wildlife vets who will try to save a poisoned young lion. We learn that the BBC crew weep for animals they have come to know and love.
Dynasties is a remarkable demonstration of the importance of the natural world, and the need for a properly funded public-service broadcaster to make programmes of this quality about it.
It’s a quiet, commanding call to arms for conservation. And, in our Darwinian age of survival of the fittest, for taking action on behalf of others. The revelation of the small interventions by the crew to help the creatures they were filming struck a powerful chord. “That brief window,” tweeted the Times’ Neil Fisher, “when we are all united by penguins.”
ATTENBOROUGH’S DYNASTIES, TVNZ 1, Sunday, 7pm, and On Demand.
This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.