Nature documentaries are important to visually analyse due to their ideological content. “That is the way in which they both express and ideologically reinforce particular and selected social values and world views, while also in the longer term contributing to changes in social and public perceptions and attitudes to nature” (Hansen 129). However, nature documentaries have largely been left undiscussed in cinematic scholarly debate and analysis, (Bousé 17). As our perceptions of the natural world begin to clash with visible evidence of changing climates and habitats, I would like to examine the ways in which nature and environmental concern are communicated, particularly in the BBC’s: Blue Planet II.
Thanks to the unparalleled cinematography and the gentle “god-like,” voice of David Attenborough; BBC nature documentaries have been some of the most successful shows on television. The blue-chip approach merged with more scientific discourse than competitors means the shows enjoy a level of trust with their viewers while still producing breathtaking television (Richards 5). They have continued to emerge on top of ratings, to the extent that the last episode of Blue Planet II, which focused on human-induced environmental issues, titled Our Blue Planet, on Sunday 10 December 17 reached over 13 million viewers.
Considering this particular series is available for purchase online and on DVD, and was aired internationally in over 30 Countries, it’s ability to bring nature to the screen to people across generations is staggering. It is this popularity and for the clear example of environmental concern infiltrating the wildlife genre, reflecting changing attitudes to the natural world that I have chosen to analyse Blue Planet II in particular.
Despite the shows mostly positive success among the public, and the inclusion of environmental topics alongside standard blue-chip representations it has come under some environmental criticism. Journalist Patrick Barkham from the Guardian commented that a “sublime rendering” of a world almost without humans, was “at odds with the message the programme conveyed with new urgency in its final episode” (Guardian).
Similarly, journalist Philip Hoare argued that:
There is a vast disconnect at work here – most especially in our imaginations. We turn our backs on the oceans – as if their reality were too big, too problematic. Instead, we turn on our screens, an ersatz blue, another depository of dreams (Guardian).
The discontent here highlights some of the complexities of producing beautiful and enchanting versions of wildlife and indeed doing this alongside environmental messages. Although the producers do not claim to be environmentalists, indeed Producer James Honey borne noted that they were “just showing issues as they came up,” (Radio Times) the content reflects the increasing visibility of human induced change threatening the blue-chip format and philosophy.
The sentiments of the discontented journalists echo some of scholars such as Derek Bousé, who argued that the blue-chip format worked to produce a kind of sensationalised nature, devoid of politics, humans and science (15). Similarly, it has been argued that by highly aestheticizing animals and habitats in familiar codes it places the viewer in a passive position, one in which it is assumed the greater complexities are beyond understanding (129 Hansen). This is in order to maintain the spectacle of nature as an independent wilderness (Hinchliff 10), and Bousé argued this served to alienate us from nature, creating a nature/culture dualism (Bousé 5). As Adams noted, thinking of nature as separate is is extremely important for humans, so that they may sit outside their own human thought (Milton 114). However, this spectacle arguably could lead to actively producing a clearer distinction between human and non human, rather than highlighting the interconnectedness of humanity and environment, which would have positive implications for environmentalism (Bousé 7). This distinction could come to be shattered as the effects of Climate Change become more visible. As author, educator, environmentalist, Bill McKibben argued when contemplating the end of nature as an independent wilderness, he wrote:
By the end of nature, I don’t mean the end of the world … I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it. But The death of those ideas begins with concrete changes in the reality around us, changes that scientists can measure and innumerate. More and more frequently these changes will clash with our perceptions until finally our sense of nature as eternal and separate is washed away. And we will see all too clearly what we have done. (42:23-43:00)
Blue Planet two perhaps all so clearly reflects some of these frequently increasing clashes as it struggles with presenting the spectacle of nature as independent from humans, such as sequences of beautiful wildlife, along side some of the visible human induced damage which has become increasingly unavoidable. That is, the series demonstrates a clash of a perception of nature as “separate” and human connectedness, visible in changes in to our environment.
On the other hand, presenting nature as a spectacle in the blue-chip format offers the feeling of “awe,’ found in nature to people who might otherwise not have access to experience themselves (Brockington 57). Attenborough argues that the media plays an important role in connecting the worlds of urbanised people to nature, and that in order to protect it they must first, understand and care for it (Attenborough. 14.47- 15.13) Television is an important medium from which people learn information (Simmons 114).
And Indeed, as Author and Anthropologist Dan Brockington mused, “para – social relationships are not necessarily bad for conservation” (145). As well as this, it would be important to recognise that highly aestheticized representations of nature have to potential to empower. (36 -37 Welling)
I have chosen predominantly two episodes to examine, I feel they most accurately represent the aspects that I would like to analyse. Firstly, in Chapter One I would like to address some historical and literary contexts to compliment the visual analysis. Outlining some aspects of the human/nature dualism that Blue Planet II reflects also including the role of the spectacle. As well as this I will provide a brief historical positioning of the show in order to deepen the results of the visual analysis. I hope in doing so it provides a well rounded exploration which strengthens the overall research.
Chapter two will address the representation of nature as a spectacle and animals predominantly in Episode One of the series. It would be necessary to take this episode as a sample as it sets a general expectation for the rest of the series. Using visual analysis for reference, it will examine the composite editing, narrative and visual technology used to draw attention to some of the tensions that exist between nature as simulated spectacle and science.
The next Chapter will address the ‘green-chip’ interruption of the blue chip format, in examining the ways in which human impact has been presented in the final episode. The interesting aspect of this Chapter is within the balance of presenting Climate Change as something digestible, but also scientifically accurate.