Frozen Planet debuts tonight on Discovery at 8 p.m. Eastern.
If you’ve ever watched that college dorm-sweeping nature documentary sensation Planet Earth and wished that it had spent more time in the “Ice Worlds” segment, then Frozen Planet is the answer to your fondest wishes. The BBC Natural History Unit was back in action to film the seven-part series, helmed by executive producer and Planet Earth mastermind, the impossibly British-sounding Alastair Fothergill. Planet Earth set a high bar for stunning images of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, but Frozen Planet more than meets the challenge. The photography is mesmerizingly beautiful. The sequences of slow motion shots showing a caterpillar hibernating throughout the winter and snowflakes crystallizing around a speck of dust are sumptuous art pieces. This is the stuff that fancy television sets are made for.
Frozen Planet is a series of vignettes about these “places of superlatives,” the least inhabitable stretches of the planet. The editing team does an admirable job of shaping tiny narrative arcs out of the drama of other species. In the first episode, “To the Ends of the Earth,” a lone male polar bear susses out a female to mate with from miles away by her scent, but then has to fend off challengers to his mate. Another vignette has a team of killer whales (who are just not as friendly as Free Willy lead me to believe) coordinating an attack against a doe-eyed seal flopped on an ice floe. The whales, dubbed “the wolves of the sea,” move together to kick up an enormous wave to wash the seal off its perch and into their waiting mouths. It was hard not to think of Werner Herzog shaking his head about the horrors of the deep in Encounters at the End of the World.
Herzog would also likely disapprove of Frozen Earth’s many lingering shots of squawking penguin colonies, particularly Discovery Channel’s promotional live camera of the penguins at San Diego’s Seaworld. Anyone who found Planet Earth’s anthropomorphizing of wild creatures off-putting will have similar beef here. I often found myself with conflicting allegiances: Do I root for the fuzzy, adorable Arctic hare or the equally fuzzy, adorable wolf cubs who are about to murder it for much-needed sustenance? In a comical land chase between an adelie penguin and a seal, neither really equipped for a footrace, whom do you pull for? Part of the feeling that you’re watching a vaudevillian tribute to the animal world comes from the narration, which is full of puns and corny little jokes. Though the British version had the narration services of the estimable Sir David Attenborough, Frozen Planet was re-narrated for American ears by Alec Baldwin, whose voice doesn’t quite seem to suit the surroundings. Baldwin’s delivery loses something in the translation. His level of seriousness hardly wavers, which becomes unintentionally hilarious when he's given lines like: “These seas are so violent, you’d have to be a masochist to live here. Either that, or a penguin.”
Still, there is plenty here that does what all good nature documentaries should: Take you out of your living room and plop you down in the weirdest corners of the earth. There are creatures that should be something out of Thom Yorke’s disturbing childhood drawings, just growing slowly under and above the ice up there, creatures like the enormous translucent “sea gooseberries” with prismatic innards, elephant seals that seem all fangs and bulbous noses, and dopey albatross chicks learning how to navigate the skies. Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole thing is the episode that shows how the long-suffering cameramen gathered all that footage. One team camped in a laughably unstable wooden hut while a four-day arctic storm tore up boulders around them; another got uncomfortably close to being eaten by a leopard seal. In the orcas' frenzy to knock the seal off its floe, they apparently made a pretty serious run at a camera boat as well.
There are a few morals to be learned from Frozen Planet. The first is that the terrifying grasp of climate change makes it even tougher for anything to survive in the North and South Poles’ already close-to-impossible conditions. But the second is that wildlife videographers are not wusses. And also, don't mess with Shamu. Seriously.