Cometh the weekend, cometh the summoning hour.
This weekend, the David Attenborough-narrated program Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C) focuses on a war for power and succession among a chimpanzee clan in the eastern Sahel region of Senegal, where the Sahara Desert is making inexorable inroads against the cool, green forests the chimpanzees call home.
Chimpanzee first aired on BBC One in the UK last November, and its harrowing tale of an aging but wise and decent clan leader threatened by adolescent anarchists in the clan played like equal parts Macbeth and King Lear.
Dynasties, from many of the same producers who brought the world Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unrelenting in its violence and tension, both implied and actual. The filmmakers followed the clan leader David and his bumptious sons Luthor and Jumkin for the better part of four years as a cohort of younger males challenge the alpha male and threaten to tip the troop into chaos as they fight to gain the upper hand. “This is a story of power, politics, and the fight for survival,” Attenborough intoned in his familiar dulcet tones in voice-over.
For the filmmakers who followed the troop for four years, it was all that and more.
Episode producer Rosie Thomas, a 13-year veteran of BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, gave casual viewers insight into the day-to-day routine of following a chimpanzee clan in the wilds of Senegal in a compelling essay for BBC One’s main website, that shows quite a different picture to the one seen on the screen.
“It’s 3.45 am,” Thomas wrote. “With the ping of the alarm we drag ourselves out of bed, pull on our field clothes, assemble in the kitchen and try to stomach some coffee and gloopy porridge. No one speaks other than the briefest of ‘mornings’ to each other. It's too early to think straight, let alone try and have a conversation. . . .
“Every trip the road looked different: the rivers might have filled or dried up, the grass could be completely burnt or even two metres high and looming well over the height of the car. So each time we had to relearn the roads.
“We followed the chimps last night until they built their nests so we know where they are located now, but we must reach the troop before dawn to make sure we’re there before they wake up. The temperature is already high, and by the time you’ve walked for half an hour you’re dripping in sweat. If the chimps are in a difficult area you may have to wade through thick vegetation, or even across a river. And all this before the sun is even up.
“We locate the individual we want to focus on for the day (usually David), set up the camera and wait. We walk and we film, we walk and we film. It’s getting very hot now. We walk, we sit and we wait.”
Not for long. Because when something happened, as it inevitably did, they would see the kind of things that stay with one for a lifetime.
There are never happy endings in the wild kingdom, only temporarily satisfactory outcomes. The chimpanzees’ future is inexorably tied to that of planet Earth, and it’s still an open question as to how that story will end.
Chimpanzee ends on a solemn grace note, with David temporarily back in control of his clan. As with any Shakespearean play, though, there are more acts to come.