Eleven years after the BBC Natural History Unit led by Alastair Fothergill and Vanessa Berlowitz capped its trilogy of documentary series on the wonders of our planet with the icy grandeurs of Frozen Planet, they return with a sequel – “To witness new wonders while there is still time to save them”. That’s Sir David Attenborough speaking. You knew that.
The opening montage of Frozen Planet II (BBC One) lays out the promise of pandas, penguins and polar bears, all brought to us by the latest in technology; racer drones are deployed for the first time, Attenborough tells us. The accumulated skills and wisdom of decades enable them to capture these extraordinary images and put them together with a grace that is seemingly effortless. It is only occasionally you remember to stop and marvel that you will be following that emperor penguin chick into the freezing waters of the Antarctic seas, or swooping above that Weddell seal for the perfect aerial shot as the ice floe fragments around him under the lashing tails of massed killer whales working in fatal unison.
It is, like every episode of the original and of Blue Planet and Planet Earth before it, an hour of wonders. Actually, 50 minutes of wonders now. Syndication deals need to allow for advertisement time in other countries. The uninterrupted viewing allowed by the BBC might not be quite as breathtaking as the Siberian tiger crunching through a snowy forest, but it deserves its own little moment of appreciation.
The first instalment works its way up from Antarctica to the Arctic via the Great Steppe, north of the Himalayas, the boreal forests (where the Siberian tiger roams a 700-square-mile territory looking for the 10kg of slower animal it needs a day) and Greenland. To avert the risk of falling victim to Stendhal syndrome, numbed by the relentless beauty of it all, the sweeping majesty is carefully punctuated with lighter moments.
The awards in this category must be given to the Pallas’s cat, a squat, lavishly furred oblong who looks as if he’s eaten three other Pallas’s cats and a bulldog. He spits on the notion of feline elegance and would rather walk backwards into hell than break eye contact with a foe. He is a cat for our times and I want an animated series about his accidental arrival in Florida, abundant merch and Twitter clips of him staring out of the screen with contempt for us all.
But, you know, the emperor penguin chicks tobogganing down the far side of an ice mountain on their bellies were good too. And God knows, they deserve some fun after being deserted by their parents and left to navigate across 30 miles of snowy wasteland on their own before they reach a fish-stuffed sea.
This latest offering from the crack team and Sir David accomplishes its goal as effectively as ever; it makes us, in the best way, children again. You cannot stay unengaged, you cannot remain unmoved by the sight of nature in all her glory, or unawed by the sight of creatures honed by countless years of evolution to survive the apparently unsurvivable. Your eyes widen involuntarily as the scenes of howling gales, frozen peaks and troughs, and the animals wrenching a life from them sweep past.
At the same time, the adult within weepingly acknowledges that, for all the stuff we have, for all the cities we’ve built, for all the art we’ve produced and the flavours of KitKat we’ve invented, we are all at heart no different from the hooded seal as he inflates his nose to attract a mate (and the red balloon in his left nostril, for that special lady) or polar bears dragging them to their doom to fill an empty belly. The rest is noise, and confectionery.
At the end of the nearly-hour, after marvelling at the musk ox – “relics from the last ice age” – and the grizzly bears and the beluga whales, we get the facts. About global warming (the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world), the melting ice (the summer floes polar bears depend on could be gone by 2035 and the ice being lost in Greenland alone is responsible for a quarter of the rise in global sea levels), the suffering ecosystems, the dying oceans and all the terrible rest of it. Sir David came late to explicit advocacy on environmental issues, but every programme for the last few years has delivered starker warnings and this is topped and tailed by the starkest yet. Everything we have seen, he says, needs just one thing – the planet to stop warming. “It’s now up to us to make that happen.” The Pallas’s cat stares back.