It always seems like a proper winter Sunday night when you’ve got a new David Attenborough nature documentary on the telly, fire on, feet up and most certainly tissues at the ready, because if there’s one thing the 92 year old knows how to do, it is to show you the incredible highs and lows of the natural world.
I cried. In fact I pretty much always cry at these shows.
From the turtles in peril, to the time I even rooted for the skinny Polar Bear to kill a seal because he was starving to death, the show stirs something primal in me.
Last night’s episode of Dynasties was a case in point. It was all about Emperor Penguins. Although I’ve gotta say, I thought I might have reached peek penguin with March of the Penguins, Happy Feet and the BBC’s more recent doc on the breeding cycle of the Emperor Penguins… in fact for the first half or so, I thought I’d seen pretty much all of it before and I wasn’t going to need the tissues after all.
Until, that is, it showed us a group of Penguins cut off in an ice ravine and it all soon became like a macabre scene from Sophie’s Choice.
Now, while I love Attenborough documentaries and for all my blubbing, I do come to them with a grain of cynicism. They are always framed and presented in the best dramatic light, they find the story that’s going to work best with the viewers, add slow motion and dramatic music and hey presto you’ve got a super slick Hollywood production on your hands.
But even with the flagrant use of dramatic licence, what I love about these programmes is how it so aptly exposes so many of the same instincts and drives that we ourselves have. I often think it holds up a mirror to our faces and reveals so much truth about the human race. The drive to have offspring, to eat, to form bonds, to even grieve. Essentially, it’s the drive to survive. I often think about my little dude who might watch the show like this in a different light when he’s a bit older. He’ll have plenty of questions about why did that Lion have to eat that Zebra… and also why is mammy crying about it too?!
But back to the penguins in the ravine. Cut off from the rest of the group, in horrendous Ice storms, these few penguins were completely stuck and many of them had their young tucked under their bodies. It was incredibly sad to see them huddled and effectively helpless. They couldn’t get out. But then the documentary decided to kick us all in the teeth and showed us one penguin mother who made a dreadful choice. Faced with the situation, she ultimately left her young behind and climbed out of the ravine to save herself. I watched horrified as the poor fluffy chic tried to follow her up the hill only to roll to the bottom and shriek, alone before he ultimately perished.
Fucking hell! This is not what I want for a Sunday night David. I’m all for the circle of life and all that, but this level of emotion was not what I expected to see in the humorous animals depicted in Happy Feet! Maybe we just don’t share as much with the animal world as I first thought.
And then, the show did what it does so well. It delivers a sucker punch in one moment, only to follow with a loving hug the next. The camera slowly focused in on another penguin mum in the same ravine, facing the same predicament. We watched as, baby tucked under her body, she literally scraped and clawed with her beak and body to get herself and her young out of the ravine and to safety. I swear I was cheering for this penguin harder than Jacob Stockdale making his run for that try against the All Blacks the night before.
Go, you can do it, GO!
With one last Herculean effort she made it and with it my faith in the world was restored. But what about the rest of them? Were they going to abandon their young to get out? Were they going to make it to the top like she had done, or what seemed more likely, were they simply going to stay there and die?
As the show moved on, the latter was what we were lead to believe.
And then during the behind the scenes clip at the end of the show, where the team who capture the footage are revealed, we were shown what ultimately happened in that ravine of doom. In a completely unprecedented move, the crew decided to intervene. They dug a shallow ramp of steps which allowed the trapped penguins to walk out to safety.
Cue bawling mammy.
It was a truly beautiful moment of empathy. It of course raises questions about film crews 'breaking the rules' and intervening in the natural order, where does it end, what are the criteria for stepping in? But I for one am happy they did it, because it was the right thing to do.
And sometimes you have to break the rules in order to do the right thing