BBC’s epic eight-part documentary series Human Planet is a fascinating celebration of humanity’s ability to adapt to all environments across the globe, from the comfort of modern cities to the outright hostility of jungles, oceans, and the frozen wastes. Typical of the BBC, the footage contained in each episode is some of the most spectacular yet to be filmed, taking full advantage of improvements in filming technology and accessibility to remote regions. Each episode (covering Oceans, Deserts, Arctic, Jungles, Mountains, Grasslands, Rivers, and Cities) tells several stories relating to how communities survive in their particular environments, and the lengths people go to live in some truly difficult places is at times humbling and deeply admirable.
Where Human Planet shines most is when it focuses its gaze on the more remote people of our planet. Whether displaying the tribal courting rituals of the Wodaabe people in Niger, the mussel gatherers of Arctic Canada, or the monkey breastfeeding of the Awá Guajá in the Amazon, each episode manages to highlight the remarkable existences carved by communities well outside of our seemingly civilized world. Actor John Hurt delivers the narration with appropriate gravitas, delicately pitching whatever tone is most appropriate for the images on screen, whether dramatic or whimsical. That said, Hurt is merely an acceptable second choice, and Human Planet could certainly have been improved had legendary documentarian David Attenborough been involved.
Whatever the reasons for Attenborough’s absence, it also in a sense highlights what many people will no doubt have problems with concerning this series. With previous series such as Planet Earth or Life, the BBC have removed humanity’s presence from their footage as much as possible, yet here we are placed at the centre of the narrative, and, while certainly interesting, pointing the cameras at us isn’t always the most pleasant feeling. Human Planet pulls back the curtain a little on previous BBC nature shows, and the sense that there are always people lurking just outside the frame, ready to swoop in and exploit the natural world is a little unsettling. For the most part, the indigenous people the series focuses on are taking what they need out of necessity rather than greed, but there are hints about the destruction we are causing to our planet. The final episode, Cities, is the most illuminating in terms of the damaging effects of humanity’s spread, but clearly this was not the intended purpose for this series. There is much unsaid, but in the end Human Planet is a worthy addition to the BBC’s vast catalogue of nature documentary series, and has infinitely more value than the majority of what’s on our TV screens today.