From Snow Leopards to Turtle Hatchlings, 'Planet Earth II' Is About Revelation

Photo: BBC America
Ten years after Planet Earth premiered on TV (on BBC in the U.K. and on Discovery Channel in the U.S.), transforming the way audiences saw their planet, the Emmy-winning docuseries is back -- this time taking a much closer look at the habitats of the natural world. In a simulcast premiere, Planet Earth II will make its debut on AMC, BBC America and Sundance TV Saturday, Feb. 18, with the remaining episodes airing every Saturday on BBC America. Thanks to new advances in technology (mostly in remotely operated cameras) and an interest in providing audiences with a new perspective on Earth, Planet Earth II will put audiences inside the journeys seen on-screen. “They [will be able to] empathize with the challenges that the individual animals are dealing with,” says Michael Gunton, executive producer of the new series, adding that unlike its predecessor, the show will not have a God’s-eye view of the planet. Rather, the view is from the ground up. “It gives you a sense of ‘that moment.’” MORE: One Leonardo DiCaprio, Two Documentaries It also creates unexpected excitement and tension, as seen in a popular sequence from the premiere episode, “Islands,” where marine iguana hatchlings sprint across the beaches of Fernandina, in the Galapagos Islands, to escape a cluster of hungry snakes that look like Medusa’s head emerging from the coastal rocks. “If I had a [British] pound for every single person who said they shouted at the television during that scene, I would not be here. I would be in my helicopter, flying off,” Gunton says of the surprise reaction to the premiere. “To get millions of people cheering for a reptile is quite an achievement. It's not a cute, furry little bunny. It's an iguana.” 
The unexpected empathy created for the iguana extends to other animals as well, such as bats fighting scorpions in “Deserts” and the hyenas of Harar, Ethopia, in “Cities.” But there are also tongue-in-cheek moments that come from most of the birds seen on the series -- there's even a Sex and the City joke about one bower bird’s attempt at mating. Of course, the true sense of wonder comes from never-before-seen footage of snow leopards in the Himalayas in “Mountains,” a favorite of returning narrator David Attenborough; the discovery of a new species, Araguaia dolphins of the Amazon river, captured in detail for the first time during “Jungles”; the unexpected aerial art of a starling murmuration seen in “Cities”; and the millions of chinstrap penguins on Antarctica’s remote Zavodosvski Island. “I think we gave the sense of the extraordinariness of that place,” Gunton says of capturing the aquatic birds as they pile into the roaring ocean during the premiere. 
But for all the awe-inspiring moments, the one that may impact audiences the most comes near the end of “Cities,” the docuseries’ final episode, exploring the manmade habitat. On the beaches of Barbados, hundreds of sea turtle hatchlings are born to a confusing world of natural light -- the moon, which is supposed to lead them to the ocean -- and the bright lights of the city, which draws the hatchlings inward to oncoming traffic and other perils. While many animals have adapted in astounding ways to the impact of humanity and manmade infrastructures, the series reminds audiences that there are wonders at stake. Following documentaries like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood, which confronted audiences with the reality of a world affected by climate change, Planet Earth II also has to acknowledge humanity -- or, as Gunton puts it, “the challenges beyond Mother Nature.” “There was a groundswell about what’s happening,” he says, which spurred the creation of the second series, while adding that this is not a conservation documentary. “This series was not the place to do that.” While the docuseries did get some criticism for not overtly addressing issues of climate change or the impending extinction of certain specifies when it aired in the U.K., Gunton believes they got the tone and balance right. “The trick is doing it so it doesn’t feel at odds with the general theme of the show, which is about wonder.” Collectively, all of these moments of wonder -- the happy, the scary, the violent and the upsetting -- will lead, Gunton hopes, to a moment of revelation. “This is an opportunity for people to look up and open their eyes to a world that we’re only a small part of,” he says, adding that many, he thinks, will “feel liberated by that.”