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Friday, 14 November 2008

Oceans, BBC2


Did we like it?
Amid the wondrous vistas of aquatic beauty, as sperm whales affectionately jostled one another, as Humboldt squids darted about the inky depths like organic missiles, as sea lions brazenly warned off the divers encroaching on their nursery, that malignant blight of focusing on ‘the team’ exploring this vivid territory tarnished the pleasure.

What was good about it?
• The obvious highlight was the culmination of ‘the team’’s adventure around the Sea of Cortez occurred as they tracked a pod of sperm whales. At first, a few enormous tails flipping into the sea where all that was visible, but soon about six or seven of the whales could be seen. Two of ‘the team’ swam out to them, and we were treated to these leviathans coiling themselves up in a giant knot of sperm and blubber.
• The spectacle became even more wondrous when a ‘mature’ male muscled in on the party, and proceeded to try and mate with everything in sight, and there was even footage of two of the beasts appearing to have intercourse, which elucidated one of those great mysteries of the world about how creatures that size ever managed to become intimate enough to breed.
• Earlier ‘the team’ had illustrated tracked the sperm whales with a microphone – “Their clicks reach 200 decibels, and so can be heard for many miles underwater” – and then collected breath samples by flying a remote controlled helicopter over the whales as they flushed their blowholes.
• ‘The team’ visiting a native tribe on the shores in which Lucy Blue examined the way they collected scallops from the sea bed in such a way as to conserve the population for the future. Of course, the ‘tribe’ had already been corrupted by the germ of Westernisation evidenced by their cheap T-shirts and sunglasses, leaving you to fear how long it would be before the spectral arm of the corporate world ‘educated’ them on making it a commercial enterprise.
• The dive to examine the hydrothermal vents shooting up from the Earth’s mantle through the San Andreas fault line. The experiment to boil eggs over one of the vents, however, wasted more time on a dreary indulgence.

What was bad about it?
• Just like Pacific Abyss and Land of the Jaguar, we follow the gilded narrative of ‘the team’ as they set about their voyage of discovery of “the last wilderness on Earth”, and sadly end up learning more about ‘the team’ than we do about the flora and fauna of the Oceans.
• The subjective portrayal almost bullies the viewer into observing the events from the perspective of those present, as if the producers cannot fathom ordinary people are capable of experiencing emotion unless coerced and guided by a nannying hand.
• Far too frequently, ‘the team’ greeted each new observation of whales, dolphins or sea lions with an instinctive gush of senseless joy; it might be “Yes! Yes!”, or Philippe’s catchphrase of “awesome” as if auditioning for his own MTV show. While they may have been genuine expressions of astonishment or happiness, they should have been edited out as this obsession with conveying ‘the team’’s perspective lingered and spread, culminating in pointless scenes of them enjoying a swim, which told us nothing about the Sea of Cortez.
• This trend of directing the viewer when to feel emotion, and which emotion to feel, has leaked over from not just Pacific Abyss and Land of the Jaguar, but more insidiously from football coverage when the camera pans to the agony or ecstasy of a manager after his team have conceded or scored a goal, demanding that you must feel the same, or opposite depending on your affiliation. And it recently reached an egregious zenith at the National TV Awards, when Strictly Come Dancing beat X-Factor, and the focus was not on Arlene, Craig et al but instead on Simon Cowell’s fraudulent incandescent fury inviting the viewer to laugh at his pain, but inadvertently proved the latent impression that, in the eyes of idiots, he is bigger than TV itself.
• Having spread its contagion to natural history, the corrosion is perhaps unstoppable. We can’t understand why there needs to be so much concentration on people who should merely fulfil the roles of buckets to carry the information to the viewer. Occasionally, their input is valued, Philippe followed up his dumb “diving with sea lions is one of my favourite things in the world”, with a perceptive insight into their behaviour, drawing attention to the bubbles emitted from its “bony crest” as “a way of saying we’re in charge”.
• But even these rare moments were sometimes spoilt. After swimming with the sperm whales, Tooni and Philippe headed back to the boat, where they gave a parade of nonsensical illiterate clich├ęs about their experience – again understandable in their excitement but it should never have been broadcast – towards the end of which Tooni made the illuminating observation that she felt “a boom go through my body”. However, this revelation had been spoilt earlier when it was included in the prologue, and the instant she said “boom”, the sound of a ‘boom’ was helpfully tagged on and the camera shook slightly as if worried the viewer couldn’t possibly conceive what ‘boom’ might feel like.
• When Paul opened a trunk containing a dead Humboldt squid, we imagined the scientists would marvel over its ingenious evolution, its gold-teethed suckers, the huge talon-like beak, the enormous eyes. But instead they metamorphosed into a bunch of tabloid tourists, repulsed by its slimy tentacles, as Paul emphasised how its beak could snap off a person’s finger with that same awed sadomasochism that greets the sighting of a Great White off any coast anywhere in the world with alarmist headlines about how they could acquire a taste for human flesh and that everyone in the world is in danger, even if you’re reading these words from your sitting room in Ashby-De-La-Zouch.
• And the alarmist thread ran deep through Oceans, too. In an utterly pointless section of film, Paul explained that with rebreathers, “there’s a few different ways you can kill yourself” – a similar phantom imperilment was fabricated in Pacific Abyss. Further extraneous instances of mortal danger came when Paul’s radio contact with the surface went dead, the ominous incidental music didn’t waste a moment before dutifully scuttling up as a harbinger of doom, and also the rough seas on the squid dive and the thunder and lightning storm.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more! Commissioning editors seem to be obsessed with this kind of format. This "following a team" trend started with Coast, where it was fine, but since then the dramatisation has spun out of control.

Audiences doesn't need to see the reactions of other people to stimulate their own reactions. Attenborough didn't do it - he just let the images and information prompt the wonder.

Ditto Jacques Cousteau... The times you see his crew doing things in his documentaries, it is simply to witness them doing something remarkable, not to focus on exhortations of "how it made them feel".

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