Finally. The curtain is about to go up on Dynasties in the US, on BBC America (Saturday, Jan. 19 at 9E/8C, and subsequent weekends).
And while the audience is likely to be nowhere near as sizeable or far-reaching as that which watched Dynasties’ debut on BBC One in the UK last November, viewers in the most crowded, competitive media market in the world will finally be exposed to Dynasties’ tough, uncompromising look at the animal kingdom. (True to form, BBC America’s five episodes will air out of sequence with their original BBC broadcast; BBC America is opening with Lion (this weekend, on Jan. 19), followed by Chimpanzee (Jan. 26), Tiger (Feb. 2), Painted Wolf (Feb. 9) and finally Emperor (penguins, on Feb. 16).)
Dynasties, from many of the same producers and filmmakers who brought you Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unique for two reasons.
One, each episode revolves around a single animal family or clan and tells a tale of succession. Each hour-long episode focuses on a clan patriarch, or matriarch, as they fight for survival against a variety of threats, from the elements and climate change to human-wildlife conflict and — shades of Shakespeare — murderous family members determined to usurp the throne and upset the natural order of things.
Secondly, each episode of Dynasties has a pointed environmental message, missing from many earlier David Attenborough-narrated nature programs, in which we learn that many of the threats facing the wild kingdom today are the result of our own actions, whether it’s contributing to climate change through our voracious consumption of the Earth’s dwindling resources or, more directly, as in this weekend’s opening episode, Lion, pastoral herders in Kenya poison a pride of lions to stop the lions from preying on their cattle, a critical source of income in many impoverished local communities.
Camera crews, field biologists and anthropologists followed each family group — lions in Kenya, tigers in India, painted wolves (African wild dogs) in Zimbabwe and penguins in Antarctica, over a period of four years, and witnessed some remarkable, never-seen-before behaviour over that time. It is the first time so many different, disparate variety of animals have been followed so closely over such a long period of time in their own environment, and that alone sets Dynasties apart from the other Attenborough programs.
It also means, inevitably, that countless hours of film footage didn’t make it into the final broadcast version. The filmmakers’ behind-the-scenes stories are compelling in their own right, and that’s one reason I’ve decided to share some of them here, each week, before that week’s episode airs.
That means starting with Simon Blakeney, self-described dad and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, who followed a pride of lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve as part of the team that put together this weekend’s opener. (“Spent the last few years working on Dynasties with an amazing group of Lions,” Blakeney tweeted at @simon_blakeney. “All opinions my own!”)
Blakeney penned a handful of short essays about filming Lion, for BBC One’s main website when the series first aired, including a trenchant analysis of the perils facing Africa’s remaining wild lions today. (Little-known fact: Just 2,000 wild lions remain in Kenya, the land that made Born Free famous, but more sobering than that is the knowledge that Kenya, and the Maasai Mara, the northern extension of the world-renowned Serengeti ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the few remaining strongholds for wild lions left in the world. Period. End of story.
Naturally, Blakeney hopes the lions’ story doesn’t end there, and Dynasties is designed in part to shed further light on the lion’s plight, to an audience that might not otherwise realize just how perilous the situation is — as well as showing directly, day-by-day, how tough a lion’s life is, even at the best of times. One of Dynasties’ great strengths, as television and as mass communication, is that it’s unflinching and uncompromising in its view. When a pack of two dozen hyenas decide to annihilate a young, inexperienced lion who’s wandered too far away from the safety of his pridemates, or an otherwise tough, self-confident lioness is forced to abandon her ailing, sickly cub, to move on with that same pride, Blakeney and his team of fellow filmmakers were there to record every moment — and a lot of that ends up on the screen, whether it’s painful to watch or not.
Some of the most memorable footage he got didn’t make it into the final cut, Blakeney admits. That’s just one of the harsh realities of documentary filmmaking. An hour might sound like a long time — actually, each episode clocks in at just 48 minutes, give or take — but in a format where every second counts, four years of filming inevitably means a lot of compelling footage won’t see the light of day.
Decisions about what to leave in and take out invariably come down to subjective opinion and the vision to see a project through to its end, in a way that is coherent, disciplined, tightly focused and communicates something vital and important to the audience.
A personal favourite of Blakeney’s, in which lions exercise a peculiar habit of hunting wart hogs during those times of the year when their regular food source, the annual wildebeest migration, moves on to greener pastures — which is about six months of the year. (Lions are territorial, unlike some predators which simply follow the wildebeest across national borders from Kenya into Tanzania and back again, depending on the rains; lions stay where they are. Also, there are other lions, in other prides, with territories of their own, who will fight any intruder, great or small, to the death — literally — to protect their own.)©BBC/Natural History Unit
“The warthogs live out on the savannah and they’re very quick,” Blakeney posted on the BBC site. “They would outrun lions in a straight race. If they’re being chased, the warthogs will often bolt off into one of their many burrows, usually old aardvark burrows or similar. . . . This could involve a lot of digging. The cubs in particular weren’t very good at digging because they were smaller and not as strong as the adults. The warthogs would get pretty disgruntled and they’d scoop up big facefuls of mud with their snouts, and then chuck them at the lions as they were trying to dig them out.”
For all the hardship and tough times Dynasties’ lions went through, Blakeney had some fond memories, too. The filmmakers found themselves getting close, sometimes uncomfortably close, to their subjects, even thought they consciously tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, for ethical reasons as well as reasons artistic. (It never ends well for a wild lion who becomes habituated to human contact, intentional or otherwise.)
“On another occasion, about nine months in, one of the adolescent males walked round the back of the Land Rover I was sitting in,” Blakeney recalled, “and just appeared right beside me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reached out and stroked his mane as he walked past. I was on the radio at the time, which had quite limited range, so I was sitting right at the edge of the seat and hadn’t seen him coming. I jumped out of my skin when he suddenly emerged on the open side of the car. It’s easy to forget how big they are until you are up that close.”
The picture facing Africa’s wild lions is concerning. The IUCN Red List of threatened species officially lists lions as “vulnerable,” which is to say their future is far from assured.
Small-scale conservation groups, such as the locally-organized Ewaso Lions group in Kenya’s northern, semi-arid Samburu district, are doing what they can to lessen human-wildlife conflict, but the issue is complex and the problems are many.
Dynasties, in its own small way, hopes to spread the message to as many ordinary, everyday people — people who will probably never be able to see a wild lion in their lifetimes — as possible. If for no other reason, that makes Lion worth watching.