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A Swan Song to Nature: David Attenborough's Dynasties Reviewed

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

by Claire Rammelkamp

"Somewhere a BBC producer is grinning at the sound of my twanged heartstrings and thinking, 'That'll make the bitch adopt a panda.'"

Dynasties initially seems a strange title for the latest BBC wildlife epic, largely because of its association with the smash-hit eighties drama series.

Like the Joan Collins soap, Dynasties features a national treasure looking impossibly good for their age, this time in the form of David Attenborough. It begins like any other Attenborough documentary: sweeping establishing shots and a rare sighting of David himself, blue-shirted beneath a baobab tree in the African sun. However, this series could be seen less as a salute to the natural world, and more of a reflection on the tangled mess of an ecosystem where Homo sapiens have interfered. A few minutes in, it becomes apparent that Dynasties is also a very human drama.

Homo Erotica

The marketing image for each episode shows the animals, perhaps uniquely for a nature documentary, as individuals, with achingly beautiful chiaroscuro portraits. The faces of painted wolf, lion, and tiger emerge from darkness, eyes to camera, photographed in a way that seems to suggest psychological depth. They've even done it for the penguin, only marginally less successful as penguins don't really have faces.

The series begins with the most recognisably humanoid of animals, chimps. It's easy to view them as people: we see their familiar social structures, their wizened old-young human hands, their gently intelligent eyes. They even have human names. The protagonist (and he is very much framed as a protagonist) is called David. The storyline of the episode is full of dynastic warring worthy of a Philippa Gregory novel, and it makes for riveting TV.

This is not unusual. As long as there have been nature documentaries, there have been narratives to make their subjects' behaviour more interesting. , Watching actual lions in the zoo, they tend to just pace up and down looking a bit sad. Compared to the 'Lions' episode, in which a Shakespearean saga of struggle and sacrifice plays out over a convenient 60 minutes, real life nature can rarely seem so riveting. Even Springwatch (not traditionally considered heroic) has a team of storyboarders editing hours of mundane bluetit footage into a racy woodland drama.

It's highly effective. Dynasties achieves a higher calibre of drama. Less Hollyoaks, more Wolf Hall. Except with actual wolves.

Our Heritage

In fact, almost all of the metaphors in the commentary are to do with monarchy. Instead of 'Penguins', the Antarctic episode charting emperor penguins is simply called 'Emperors'. This lends an air of dignity to an animal that looks like a throw pillow. The painted wolf episode has map graphics showing territorial conquests which wouldn't look out of place on Age of Empires.

It's as though the producers believe superimposing human social structures on the animals will make us value them as part of our heritage. We can't just value them for what they are; different to us, wilder than us, maybe better than us, certainly as deserving of space on the planet as us. One of the most beautiful shots of the series is a drone sequence of the shadows of the wolves as they run. They seem so small from our godlike perspective. Mankind seems to struggle with ascribing worth to animals unless we can see ourselves reflected in them.

The message of Dynasties is clear: save them, because they're just like us. The trouble is, we're awful.

Almost every instance of human interaction in Dynasties is disastrous to the animals featured; from the indirect habitat loss caused by human industry, to the very direct death of a lion from poisoning by a farmer. It's so much more heart-breaking because the lion had a name. He had a character. He was part of the very human community of the pride.

The BBC knew this of course. Somewhere in the studio there is an environmentally conscious (if manipulative) producer, grinning at the sound of my twanged heartstrings and thinking, 'That'll make the bitch adopt a panda.'

The Victory of Man

Everything about Dynasties, even its very existence, reminds us how little is truly wild. Humans have simply overwhelmed every species, every space. For a moment you forget the cameras are there, like we are glimpsing some magical window into nature. Then you catch sight of a tracking collar and you remember that these creatures are being carefully monitored because there are so few of them left.