Finally. The curtain rises Saturday on Planet Earth: Blue Planet II, on BBC America and four of its AMC Networks sibling channels.
By now, followers of Sir David Attenborough’s stirring forays into the natural world know what to expect: haunting images, memorable moments and a gentle, almost childlike appreciation of nature’s wonders.
Blue Planet II has already aired in the UK — to record-setting ratings and widespread critical acclaim, as old and cliché-ridden as that may sound — and the wait here is finally over. That wait has been excruciating at times, not least for AMC and BBC America programming executives who could be forgiven for wondering if one of the year’s most talked-about global TV spectacles had somehow passed them by. It’s never a good idea to be last out of the gate when the stakes are so high. And the stakes in Blue Planet II could not be higher.
For this one is different.
Yes, all of Planet Earth’s signature marks are there. It’s joyous and harrowing in equal measure. It’s heart-lifting and heartbreaking by turns. It’s eye-filling in a way TV rarely is, and yet there it is: There is enough visual spectacle in Blue Planet II to put anything on the big screen to shame. Hans Zimmer’s music — while criticized by some for being loud and overbearing at times — tells its own story of power and majesty. There are moments that will make you laugh; there are moments that will fill you with wonder.
The world’s oceans play a vital role in the health and future of our planet Earth, and Blue Planet II pulls back the veil on some timeless mysteries that speak to the very heart of what it means to be alive and living on this world, in the same way Planet Earth and Planet Earth II lifted the spirits of even the most jaded city dweller.
Blue Planet II is unique, though, because it has already inspired change in the real world, outside TV. It’s not often a TV program can be said to change the planet, but there are signs Blue Planet II has already done just that. It seems strange to say this now, before a single minute has been broadcast in North America, but Blue Planet II has started a social movement.
The UK — ahead of the US environmentally in some ways, but profoundly behind in others — is considering new, onerous restrictions on the use of plastic, in everything from bottled water to supermarket grocery bags. Plastic bags are now banned in a growing number of countries around the world, including Kenya and Rwanda. Tourists’ bags are being opened at airports there, not for drugs or contraband but for plastic bags.
Plastic is the new enemy, for environmentalists, marine conservationists and anyone who cares about the future of the planet’s oceans. Plastic is forever. It doesn’t decompose over time, at least not in any time we care to measure. Plastic waste is dumped at sea by the ton — out of sight, out of mind — where it sinks to the bottom, breaks up, fragments and makes its way into the entire food chain. Plastic residue is everywhere, from the ocean surface, where it floats in a congealed mass, to the bottom of the deepest ocean trench. There are now even traces of plastic in tap-water — the water you drink — and there’s evidence to suggest particles may be in the very air we breathe.
David Attenborough often said he didn’t want to be seen as preaching or hectoring viewers about our lifestyle habits, but as the environment has changed around him — he is now 91 — he has changed his mind. Blue Planet II ends with a plea to consider our footprint on the environment and think about our children’s future and that of their children, and the future of the planet itself. The health of the world’s oceans is indelibly tied to the future of the planet itself.
Words by themselves can often appear empty of meaning. If there’s a single image, a single sequence in Blue Planet II that had a profound effect on everyone watching, it was a scene toward the end of a series, of a colony of albatrosses feeding their newborn baby chicks bits and pieces of plastic, mistaking it for actual food. We can be lectured at length, loudly and often, but it rarely sinks in. A single image — in a TV show watched by millions — can have a much more powerful, galvanizing effect.
Don’t discount the impact Blue Planet II had on ordinary, everyday viewers in the UK, where the program was reportedly seen by more viewers than any TV broadcast of the past five years, save two (the 2014 World Cup soccer final, and a season finale of the UK equivalent of Dancing with the Stars). These weren’t die-hard environmentalists or Whole Foods groupies, either, but everyday people who work hard, pay taxes and raise families — in short, the TV audience.
The BBC has commissioned a pair of new documentary series based on Blue Planet’s success, Drowning in Plastic and The Truth About What You Wear. As you read this, the UK parliament is debating new legislation designed to sharply curtail the use of plastic. China has said it will no longer take in the rest of the world’s plastic waste, at any price.
Not all of this is because of Blue Planet II, of course, but there’s no question it has had a profound effect, even before it’s aired in the US.
It’s family programming in the truest sense of the word — not just programming the entire family can watch together but programming that, at its heart, is about your family’s future. It’s TV that matters.
Blue Planet II premieres tonight at 9ET/8C on BBC America, AMC, IFC, WE tv and SundanceTV, and in Canada on BBC Earth. The seven-part series will air Saturdays through February and March. Blue Planet II is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, scored by Hans Zimmer and was produced by James Honeyborne. It has already aired in the UK and other parts of the world. It was the top-rated series of 2017 in the UK and the most-watched natural history program in more than 15 years.