One of the sad facts of my childhood is that I got my ideas about nature from a show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. For those who were not products of 1970s American television, Wild Kingdom was hosted by a St. Louis zookeeper named Marlin Perkins, who sat in a TV studio narrating footage of his partner, Jim Fowler, pointing to birds or letting a boa constrictor climb on him. My father-in-law, a Minnesota farmer who enjoyed these old nature shows, once perfectly summed up their appeal when he said, “I like to watch the monkey go up the tree and down the tree.”
In 1979 nature TV began improving considerably, no thanks to anyone on this side of the Atlantic or their insurance company. That was the year a BBC presenter named David Attenborough produced a series of documentaries that blew the lid off anything viewers had seen before. His series was called Life on Earth, and it was a serious attempt to show how evolution — the controversial theory Charles Darwin had promulgated about Earth’s origins — could be plainly observed in all of nature, no matter where you went. And to prove it Attenborough traveled the globe collecting film of exotic animals in the wild and then seamlessly assembling it to make his points.
That was the beginning of a long career for Sir David, as he’s now known, explaining the marvels of nature to hundreds of millions around the planet. This Earth Day finds Attenborough, who turns 95 next month, still going strong. If you have Apple TV+ you can see his new special The Year the Earth Changed, which documents how nature thrived in the year that humans stayed home because of COVID. If you have the new Discovery+ streaming channel, a number of Sir David’s works, including the pioneering high-definition series Planet Earth, are available. And today Netflix drops another wondrous three-parter of his called Life in Color.
Attenborough’s career in television began at the BBC as a producing executive. In 1969 he created Civilisation, the groundbreaking series in which Lord Kenneth Clark explained the rise of art and culture in the West. Attenborough had been in front of the camera as presenter of the BBC’s version of Wild Kingdom, called Zoo Quest. But with Civilisation he now had a template for a big-budget, high-concept nature series that took years to produce and left audiences in far greater awe of the wild than the shows you had to churn out every week.
The Attenborough style involves imposing his dramatic, authoritative-sounding voice onto visuals so commanding that it’s almost impossible for viewers not to care. This approach — so different from the nature-as-entertainment school I grew up with — requires constant innovating with video, big travel budgets, and the patience of Job. The nature photographers who get paid to wait days on end for a creature of interest to cross their path, or to observe the mating rituals of tiny South American toads, surely owe their livelihoods to Sir David.
Attenborough loves surprising viewers, even in mundane ways. In his tour de force Planet Earth, for instance, one episode opens in a dense forest, with a long continuous camera shot of a very tall tree from floor to canopy. All of the sudden, about a hundred feet up, the camera whizzes by a human dangling from a rope — he’s apparently climbing this tree — and just keeps going as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
About 20 years ago, Attenborough started turning his attention to the climate situation. He produced The Truth About Climate Change in 2006, but it seems some people couldn’t handle the truth, so when Netflix signed him to a deal, he tried a different tack. His 2019 eight-parter Our Planet played out as a typical Sir David extravaganza, with a bevy of a state-of-the-art cameras patiently collecting animal, marine, and plant life from around the globe — but each episode was infused with dire warnings of how this could all go away if we humans didn’t change our ways.
Attenborough doesn’t have to haul in any climate scientists to tell viewers that coral reefs are under assault — he just does it himself. “These reefs cover less than one percent of the seafloor, yet they are home to a quarter of all marine species,” he intones, as we view the most incredible burnt-orange-colored sea turtle I’ve ever seen. “None of these creatures would be here were it not for the coral.” A few more minutes are spent dazzling us with the swimming miracle of life around the reefs. And then with empathy running high, presto chango, time-lapse photography shows the color rapidly bleaching away from the reefs around Australia’s coast. “If the sea temperature rises by just a degree or two, the corals expel their plant partners,” he explains, “they lose their main source of food, and turn white. It may look hauntingly beautiful, but if temperatures remain high for a few weeks the corals will starve and eventually die.” Fast forward to the same barrier reef six months later, and it’s The Wizard of Oz in reverse, an underwater world gone from vibrant colors teeming with life to a dark, dingy sea bottom bereft of life. This bleak fate, Attenborough grimly notes, has already befallen “half of all shallow coral reefs worldwide.”
So perhaps this Earth Day you should watch some of Our Planet first, then chase it with the more uplifting Life in Color, his new series for Netflix. The premise of this three-parter is simple: a fair chunk of wildlife use coloration, either skin or feather, to attract mates and stalk prey. It’s dazzling. Part three is a behind-the-scenes look at how they got the shots — which has become a sidecar to every Attenborough production in recent years. I was a little confused watching a cameraman show how to capture ultraviolet colors that certain creatures can see, but humans can’t. Wait, if we can’t see it, then … what are we looking at?
That’s the thing with science — there’s more there than our lizard brains can usually take in at one sitting. Most of us have more practical scientific concerns, like whether it’s OK to unmask at the park these days. But this Earth Day (or Earth Week, or Earth Month, depending on how you celebrate), it’s worth pondering whether this incredible spectacle that David Attenborough has devoted more than 40 years explaining to us represents something more than entertainment. It is, indeed, an endless spigot of creativity, the varieties of life. And as Sir David rather insistently likes to point out these days, only humans have the power to turn the shutoff valve.
Life in Color and Our Planet are now streaming on Netflix.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.