After ‘Life on Earth’, ‘The Life of Birds’, ‘The Life of Mammals’ and ‘Life in Cold Blood’, the appellative appendages have been pruned away as TV programmes are titled with ever-shrinking brevity to match the receding ice caps to become just ‘Life’
Of course, with natural history series helmed by Sir David Attenborough it is assured to be excellent, it’s merely a matter to what degree of excellence it achieves.
Life presents a disparate assemblage of scenarios to illustrate that in every corner of the globe, on every ice floe, at the bottom of every seabed, in the depths of every jungle, the struggle for survival is something that every organism on the planet shares.
The chapters can be roughly divided into two sorts: those animals, like humans, who have evolved through intelligence to aid their survival and those creatures who adopt a natural, unthinking instinct to survive.
Perhaps because of the closer philosophical affiliation, it’s the clever mammals who best beguile. The show opened with a pod of dolphins hunting fish in the Pacific shallows. The leader beats his tail against the silt, causing the waters to metamorphose into a turbid fog, spooking the shoals of fish. The dolphin swims in ever tighter circles, effectively constricting the fish into an ever smaller space until they are compelled to leap to safety – right into the mouths of the rest of the waiting pod. It’s an ingenious innovation that is made all the more wondrous by the widespread ignorance of the cunning of other animals.
Even more impressive were the capuchin monkeys who have evolved a method of extracting their favourite seeds by first peeling away the softer outer layer, leaving it for a week to dry out a bit, and then smashing the harder inner core with rocks. And it’s not just any rocks. The capuchins have learned that the rock used to crack the outer layer must be harder than the rock upon which they place the seed. The younger monkeys are seen toiling as they ape their elders, with many failures. Sir David says that it can take eight years before they get it right.
The episodes detailing the more instinctive survival strategies employed by less intelligent animals weren’t as enlightening but still featured the lengths a mother octopus goes to nurture her spawn – guarding them until she starves to death – and the poison arrow frogs who transport their tadpole young halfway up a tree to deposit them in the amphibian equivalent of a luxury swimming pool to complete their transformation into frogs.
What was less appealing was the absence of a structured narrative. The anecdotes randomly darted across the globe awarding it the dislocated incoherence of a clips show. This was made more apparent by some stories that while fascinating were over familiar – the Venus fly trap or the lone hippo wallowing in the desiccated riverbed – but these missteps were easily compensated by the crab eating seals evading an assault by a legion of orcas or the birds gracefully dancing across the surface of the water.
Perhaps it’s the damnable mutative effect of memory, but we can’t remember any of Sir David’s previous epics suffering such impairments as this. While in this opener, the sheer awe invoked by the initiative of the animals was enough to distract the jumbled nature of the vignettes we have some doubt if such dazzling diversions can pull off the same trick for the rest of the run. On the other hand, this is Sir David Attenborough we’re talking about.