My partner and I are sitting on the sofa watching Frozen Planet. Two ponderous yet bloodily violent elephant seals fight as endless penguins stand around, presumably making cheerful bets on the outcome. (“I’ll have five medium-sized rocks on the slightly greyer one.” “You’re on!”)
We long ago gave up trying to stay emotionally detached from it all. Animals show us ourselves, and we know it, and so does David Attenborough. The male penguin looking shifty as it nicks the stones from its neighbour’s nest, the polar bear looking back at her furry babies tumbling playfully over each other and then trudging on with a resigned sigh, even the baby albatross stoically waiting in the snow till it’s old enough to leave its nest and learn to fly: there’s no pretence that we’re not essentially looking into an animal-shaped mirror here. That’s one of the reasons it’s so tiring to watch, in a good way. All human life is here, and there aren’t even any humans.
And then there’s the horrible bits. A central feature in any nature programme is the sight of a cute animal being devoured by another cute animal as David Attenborough solemnly intones: “One of these incredibly adorable creatures must die to feed the other. THIS IS HOW LIFE WORKS, PEOPLE. NO LOOKING AWAY, COWARDS.”
But we do. We go through a guilty process of determining what we can manage to watch. Whales eating fish? No problem. Wolves eating ducklings? Bearable, though we wince when the furry wolf-puppies get joyfully spattered with the bloody meat of the hare they’re devouring. And then there’s the inevitable, heartbreaking narrative of the baby polar bears versus the baby seal cubs. That’s the one that gets us. The large, meltingly beautiful eyes of the baby seal gaze at the screen with mute appeal as the mother polar bear approaches from behind like a very high-stakes game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. If the seal escapes, the baby bears may starve. We pause the TV, take a deep breath, and half-watch through averted eyes; but it’s okay, the programme has taken pity on us and started showing us an overview of the Arctic ice instead.
Oh God, the landscapes. Every frame of every shot of Frozen Planet is so achingly, icily beautiful that I keep finding I’ve forgotten to breathe. Of course, it’s not a beauty you want to get close to, as becomes extremely clear during the last section of the show, the ‘how-we-did-it’ segment. The sight of the cameramen trapped in a flimsy-looking hut for four days during a 130-mile-an-hour Antarctic snowstorm is terrifying. They remain startlingly stoic through it all, I feel. Towards the end they’re a bit red-eyed and tired-looking, but that’s about it. BBC people are made of steel, apparently. I would have given up after a couple of hours and abandoned myself to my fate, gibbering.
In fact, that’s really why I find Frozen Planet exhausting. It’s not just the range of emotions I run through: awe, terror, maternal protectiveness, laughter, more awe, more terror. It’s the way it illustrates that life just keeps going, on and on, despite everything that nature, the world’s most challenging obstacle course, can throw in its way. I know I should find this exhilarating. Instead I find it enervating.
Take the woolly bear caterpillar. Attenborough shows it to us, balanced hungrily on a leaf, eating as if there’s no tomorrow – which there more or less isn’t, as it’s trying to build up enough energy to become a moth before the spring ends. But it runs out of time, so it buries itself and freezes: blood turns to ice, heart stops, everything. Next year, it emerges as if nothing had happens, metaphorically looking round and going, “Haha, you thought I was dead? Fooled you!” Cue another season of trying and failing to eat enough to become a cocoon, giving up, and then freezing itself again like a caterpillar-flavoured ice lolly. This goes on for 14 years. Fourteen years! I know they say if at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again, but this is ridiculous.
And then, finally, the woolly bear gets the right weather. It cocoons itself, turns into a moth, mates if it’s lucky and dies about a week later.
Does this serve as a metaphor about how the human spirit endures hardship, or does it suggest that some people (and animals) just don’t know when to quit? I am filled with ennui just contemplating this life cycle. I admire, but I also think “Just give up! Nature does not intend you to reproduce! Take the hint!”
Yes, life endures; but I’m not sure it always wants to. You can see it in the eyes of Mark the Antarctic cameraman, staring at us after two months with the face of a man who has seen far, far too many penguins. I should have been an accountant, he’s thinking. Right now, I could have been sitting on a sofa eating Pringles. Like you. You bastards.