In these days of Netflix’s relentless march through all things TV, it can be easy to forget that there was a time when documentary series were more about education than titillation, when the only regal tigers we’d be seeing would not be on a trailer park, but surveying the majestic savannahs they prowl, and when the only "Baskin" we’d be meeting would be a type of shark.
Verified British national treasure Sir David Attenborough was, and remains, the undisputed king of the nature documentary. From his earliest adventures at the BBC in the 1950s with Animal Patterns and Zoo Quest to the internationally acclaimed 1979 trailblazer Life on Earth and the ensuing Life series that would span the next 30 years. Through technologically groundbreaking 21st Century works such as Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth (2006), which pioneered the latest in high-tech underwater photography and HD filming respectively, Attenborough has consistently set the bar for any aspiring natural history filmmaker.
Now he’s back with The Green Planet, and even at a sprightly 95 years of age, his sense of wonder at nature’s marvels remains unabated, while his soothing, knowledgeable tone reminds us of the kindly and all-knowing professor we all wish we’d studied under.
As the name of his latest five-part series suggests, this time around Attenborough is turning his attention to plants, and if you think that sounds a bit less exciting than big cats, marauding sharks or comical monkeys, think again.
The Green Planet introduces us to incredible tropical trees that can grow 10 metres in a single year in a quest to reach the light of the forest canopy before their competitors – a typical tree manages just one inch in the same period.
We learn about amazing tree communities that wait for up to a decade to all simultaneously drop billions of seeds at once, like a single interconnected brain ensuring there are simply too many seeds on the forest floor for hungry birds and animals below to eat up the whole of the next generation.
We also get up close with the hammer orchid, an Australian flower that can pull off such a convincing impersonation of a female wasp that the males try to mate with it.
Of course, no plant is an island, and we also learn about the plant world’s relationship with animals, from unwitting pollinators to leaf-cutting ants, sap-sucking birds and, of course, humans.
Attenborough is a dedicated environmentalist, so we’re left in no doubt as to the dangers mankind can pose to the plant world, from global warming playing havoc with seasons and the life cycles of natural predators to man’s creation of artificial monocultures for farming purposes putting entire ecosystems at risk.
It’s not all bad news, though, and we also see plenty of the good work humanity is doing to try and preserve and repair the natural world. Dedicated scientists are busy collecting and storing the seeds of endangered plant species to hopefully one day make them strong again, while one American conservationist dedicates his entire life to hand-pollinating a rare flower with only 57 examples left in the wild. The flower’s existence is further threatened by the fact that the only bird that naturally collects its pollen is even rarer than the plant itself.
We even learn that the job of “plant sniper” exists – or herbicide ballistic technology expert to give it its official title. This committed sharpshooter spends his life in a helicopter, firing herbicide-filled paintballs into the stems of invasive foreign species that cling to the mountainsides of Hawaii, smothering the native plant life.
Each episode concludes with a section on the very modern methods used to shoot these leafy wonders. From a robotic camera rig that can catch plants growing in real-time with time-lapse photography to the meticulous disinfection required to avoid carrying any non-native plant life into the world’s few remaining pristine areas of undisturbed beauty, the methods the team use to shoot the footage are often just as awe-inspiring as the methods the local flora has adapted to survive.
With five one-hour episodes dedicated to the plant life of the seasonal, tropical, water, desert and human worlds The Green Planet is must-watch TV in the finest Attenborough tradition, and we can only hope that this nonagenarian wonder of the human world has plenty more documentaries in him yet.
The Green Planet premieres on BBC Earth, beIN Channel 205, on Monday, January 10 at 9pm