The new documentary series Frozen Planet is by itself an explanation for why HDTV exists. The beauty is so breathtaking, so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, that you may find yourself rewinding bits of it just so you can see it again right away. This is the mission of all good nature documentaries, of course: to be so compellingly beautiful that you may not even notice how much you’re learning. And Frozen Planet has a lot to teach us.
Following in the footsteps of the tours de force that were 2006′s Planet Earth and 2009′s Life, Frozen Planet was made by the BBC’s Natural History Unit, a group whose name scarcely begins to describe the lengths its members will go to produce documentaries. As with its predecessors, it’s been re-cut and had re-narrated for the American audience — this time Alec Baldwin takes on the narration, and lends the production a comfortable American voice with enough gravitas that you hang on his every word.
If all good documentaries aim to show their viewers a part of the world they will probably never see, or to present the world in a way they could never see any other way, then Frozen Planet succeeds in spades. The arctic and antarctic regions of the planet are both its most remote and harshest environments, and ones that only a very small percentage of people will ever visit. And even those who do will likely never see polar bears fight over a mate, or watch killer whales produce waves precisely crafted to knock seals off of ice floes. Certainly few humans will ever spelunk through the caves beneath Antarctica’s Mount Erebus, and witness firsthand what must be the most amazingly gorgeous ice crystals that have ever existed. Frozen Planet brings all of this, and a whole lot more, to you in the comfort of your living room. And, like most nature documentaries, it uses slow-motion to bring you, say, the beauty of an owl in mid-flight, and speeds up sequences so you can, say, marvel at how a brinicle forms (the first time this has ever been filmed, incidentally).
Frozen Planet also serves as a wake-up call about climate change, but not in a preachy or political way. The makers simply show you the facts of what has been happening to the arctic and antarctic, and explains what the future consequences of this change could be for the creatures of those areas — and the creatures of populated areas, too. The final episode of the series, titled “On Thin Ice” (which was not available for review) is hosted on-camera by naturalist David Attenborough, addresses the issue of global warming head-on, and early reports that the episode would not be shown in its entirety in the U.S. were incorrect.
Like many nature documentaries, Frozen Planet has sequences that may not be appropriate for younger kids. There are several violent fights between animals of the same species, and seeing the results is not particularly pleasant — the bloody (but victorious) male polar bear was particularly so, to me at least. And there are of course plenty of sequences of predators and prey, and many kids may have trouble with the suspense of, say, a sea lion pursuing a penguin — though the chase itself, on land, is fairly comical (see video below). There is also footage of mating, as you’d expect, and some of it is, if not truly explicit, at least closer to explicit than may make some parents comfortable. There was also at least one mention of the word “foreplay,” though without any real explanation of its meaning. My advice for parents of younger kids is to DVR and pre-watch each episode before you decide whether or not to show it to your kids — heck, you’ll probably want to watch them again, anyway, so what do you have to lose?
The makers of Frozen Planet spent four years making the documentary, and endured some of the harshest conditions you can imagine — the “Making of” episode is fascinating in and of itself. (Example: A two-man team was dropped in a remote — even for Antarctica — location with only a small structure for shelter, and endured hurricane-force winds for four straight days, with their food and other supplies secured outside the structure where they couldn’t go out to get them.) The conditions they endured will make you grateful and amazed that people exist who are so dedicated to the job of making this kind of series, for without them this experience could never have happened.
Discovery and the BBC have made this past decade the best ever for nature documentaries, and Frozen Planet ranks right up there with its predecessors. It’s breathtaking — sometimes literally — and is something you will want to watch over and over. It’s not often that any TV series can show you so many things you have never seen before — could never have seen before — and you should not miss it.
Frozen Planet premieres tonight on the Discovery Channel at 8pm ET/PT. Set your DVR for it, because you’ll want to see it again even if you watch it when it airs. The show’s website has a lot of great stuff, including games and video clips, plus a fun PenguinCam, showing live footage from SeaWorld San Diego. See below for a clip from the sea lion – penguin chase: