Did we like it?
Moments of astounding natural beauty punctuated by moments of outstanding manufactured vexation.
What was good about it?
• The rain forests of Guyana are such a naturally beautiful landscape that you could simply have propped a camera almost anywhere in the verdant undergrowth and popped back a month later with enough celluloid miracles to fill three hours of TV (and, at some points we might have preferred this to have been the case).
• In those rare instances when the team shut their mouths and let us watch the wildlife they’d admirably found unobstructed there were some magical sights.
• The teeming fish leaping back up the river in an apparent forlorn quest to return to their breeding grounds. The team helpfully scooped up armfuls of the fish to show us that they were indeed fish and were leaping, which was invaluable.
• Dr George took a break from cracking his bullwhip over the skulls of nefarious Nazis to explain how ants have evolved to ‘ride’ leaves carried by their larger siblings to fend off flies who want to lay eggs in the siblings’ heads. Unfortunately, more time was spent on the scientific first of watching men carry a boat across land to an adjacent tributary.
• When Gordon and George finally make it to their destination, we were able to enjoy the fearless giant otters and nonchalant capybara. While Justine captured an anteater on camera as it nuzzled a termite nest.
• Steve’s sojourn atop the Venezuelan mountain was about three thousand times more interesting than the climb to get there. He spent time tracking down a mysterious mammal, probably unidentified, stroked a vividly-coloured frog and set up a light trap which attracted flocks of huge moths – this was brilliant television, and it’s just a shame there couldn’t have been more chapters like this.
• Similarly, Gordon’s race to film a rare harpy eagle was just as beguiling. Scrambling to a bank to point his camera up to its high perch, it remained largely motionless while the dismembered body of a small monkey hung limply from its talons like a child’s toy.
What was bad about it?
• When we watch scientists venture off into the unknown on an expedition to discover new species and navigate tough terrain, we anticipate the majority of the time to be consumed by the animals and plants, and close observation of their habits. We don’t expect the scientists to be portrayed as amateur Indiana Joneses, the jungle to be an autonomous entity with a rootless desire to end human life and the animals slavering fiends from Dungeons & Dragons. But this is what we mostly got.
• Our hackles were raised by the opening credits that introduced each scientist like the cast of Dallas, showing off a taste of their skills – filming in the canopy, rock climbing, complaining – which indicated this would be a character-driven documentary of the worst kind. Can’t they gather we’re not terribly interested in Steve’s rock climb, only the zoological treasure trove he found at the top of the mountain?
• And our irascibility was exacerbated further by the overblown commentary that sought to cast each slight inconvenience as a life-imperilling tragedy-in-waiting. “Every step is a step into the unknown!” to describe the climb. It’s hardly “the unknown” when you’ve got panoramic shots from a helicopter.
• While Steve still found the time to breathlessly exaggerate the danger: “If this boulder came off, I don’t want to think about what would happen.”
• Meanwhile, Gordon and George are trekking up a river, but this is no ordinary river. “Ahead of them, mile after mile of ferocious rapids”, and once the rapids have been tackled, “The wildlife of the upper reaches of the river are protected by these treacherous falls.” Now we appreciate that trekking through the Amazon is difficult, but we don’t want to listen to people bleating about it, we can see it’s quite tough from the pictures.
• And Gordon and George are further troubled when, “Their boat’s being dragged back against the current.” Naturally, it’s all hands to the pump, except the cameraman who captures the incident to prop up the drama. And if we want to watch middle-aged men struggle up South American rivers we’ll rent out Fitzcarraldo.
• Steve, too, isn’t one to let a chance to ruin a view with his own commentary go begging. “The view is extraordinary, wisps of clouds below,” he exclaimed, describing an extraordinary view of the jungle, with a few wisps of clouds below his perch. As an optional audio commentary for the blind it might be evocative, but for everyone else it’s superfluous.
• Justine clambered into a cave full of vampire bats and couldn’t wait to tell us how scared she was, as if auditioning for a Discovery Channel documentary to further demonise the Great White shark. “They’re the stuff of nightmares, aren’t they?” she confided. No, they look like fascinating creatures. “Vampire bats,” she continued, reaching for a crucifix and wooden stake from her backpack, “are perfectly designed to feed on blood – razor sharp teeth pierce the skin and two channels under the tongue help draw it up.” We’d rather have learnt more about their echo-location hunting technique.
• But Gordon and George weren’t to be outdone. They spotted a huge anaconda on the riverbank. Gordon sized up the chances of a lethal encounter, recalling with relish that a smaller anaconda had once “eat a whole pig”. We just can’t fathom why such a professional team took such a juvenile approach to beautiful wildlife, focusing on their threat to humans, real or imagined.
• While we appreciate that each David Attenborough opus is filmed over a duration of about six years for six hours of programming, there was far too much team-centric filler that diluted the impact of the real attraction – the wildlife.
• “Guyana, South America,” confided the tarnished narration. If a viewer doesn’t know where Guyana is then they should be forced to go and look it up on a map.
• Useless similes and metaphors. “Steve’s having to raise his game to keep up with his world class [climbing] team.” ‘World class’ is meaningless even when used in its most common haunt of inebriated football disputes, and is even more inane when applied to climbers. How about “excellent team” or “superb team”, what’s wrong with these adjectives?
• And: “Ahead of them, a climb the height of Canary Wharf.” We don’t all live in London and therefore have no idea how tall Canary Wharf is. Why not state the height in metres and then let us imagine something we’re familiar with that’s approximately the same height, or choose a more significant landmark?