Nature documentaries have come a long way since the worn VHS tapes of middle school science class. Advances in technology have led to groundbreaking, award-winning docuseries like Planet Earth and Blue Planet (both of which have gone on to have even better sequels, Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II). These series, which serve an obvious educational purpose, are also breathtaking and majestic works of art. They take viewers to some of the most remote places on Earth in order to explore the fascinating creatures who call them home. But many of today's documentaries, as beautiful as they are with their high-definition cinematography and evocative scoring, also come with a warning: the Earth as we know it is dying, and it's largely our fault.
Netflix's eight-episode docuseries Our Planet, which comes from the creators of the BBC's Planet Earth in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, exposes viewers to the harsh realities currently challenging the natural world. Its insightful but pointed commentary about why these environments are all worth saving is aided by an unflinching look at the ways in which Earth has been damaged by our own hands. This all comes to together to makes Our Planet a powerful series, and the most necessary TV viewing of the season.
Although the role humanity has played in the ongoing destruction of our planet has been a running theme in many of the recent docuseries produced by the BBC Natural History Unit — Blue Planet II never shied away from highlighting the disastrous effects humans have on Earth's oceans, while Dynasties focused on how many of the challenges endangered species face are a direct result of human contact or humanity's growing presence in their lands — Our Planet's message feels more dire, perhaps because the filmmakers never let us forget it.
The first episode of the series captures the moment a glacier begins to break apart and tumble into the ocean, imagery that has a much greater impact than, say, seeing side-by-side images that reveal our shrinking ice caps. The second episode features a shocking sequence in which walruses fall to their deaths from a steep cliff because the sea ice they used to climb onto to sleep and raise their young is disappearing, and they've retreated to small pieces of land instead. In the scene, thousands upon thousands of walruses attempt to find purchase on the limited stretch of beach, and they climb higher and higher to escape the crushing mass of bodies. They're exhausted by the effort, but as narrator Sir David Attenborough solemnly notes, they must eventually leave their high perch to find food. "As they get hungry, they need to return to the sea. In their desperation to do so, hundreds fall from heights they should never have scaled," he says.
Our Planet, like so many nature documentaries of late, is completely awe-inspiring. It's full of mesmerizing beauty. It has a score deserving of many, many awards. But it is also full of uncomfortable moments that refuse to let viewers ignore the way our environments (additional episodes of the series visit rainforests, fresh waters, deserts, grasslands, forests, coastal seas, and oceans) are changing as a result of humanity's actions — or perhaps inaction. The way the cameras follow walrus after walrus to their horrific ends is one of the worst things I've ever seen on-screen. It's horrifying, and it's upsetting. But it's also incredibly powerful. Without shows like Our Planet and their dedication to showing us the truth about the ways our natural world is suffering as a result of climate change, it's easy for many of us to sit in our living rooms, bingeing the latest show of the moment, and ignoring the way our fragile planet is falling apart. A show like Our Planet, with its powerful message calling for immediate action, makes that impossible now.