I love wildlife documentaries. I grew up watching all the classic Attenborough natural history TV series, glued to the wonders he showed us, and desperate to find out more. I couldn't really tell you whether I watched them because I was obsessed with animals, or whether I was obsessed with animals because I watched the documentaries, but either way, both played a large part in my eventual decision to become a biologist1. I still enjoy them now, and I often learn new things from them. I do find that my acquired pedantry means that I wince at over-simplifications or anthropomorphism in the commentary, but the photography is better than ever.
Yellowstone -- the new BBC series which started last night -- is a great example. There were breathtaking shots of the landscape in winter: stars wheeling around frozen trees; the air itself seeming to sparkle in an ice storm; ice crystals forming on the rich brown hair of a bison; an extreme close up of the feet of a dipper, clutching smooth nodules of ice as bright water flowed below. All of these sights are things that you and I could probably not see, even if we were allowed into the closed park and could stand the -40deg;C temperatures. The camera compresses or extends time, so that we can see processes we're too slow or too impatient to perceive. We can get up close to animals behaving naturally, and see every hair and feather sharply and look into their eyes.
In one particularly painterly shot, we saw the long furrow produced by a bison moving through the virgin snow with a meandering track. The shot was framed so that the track originated in the bottom left with the exhausted and weak bison pausing at the top right of the frame. It was so eloquent about the life of a bison in deep winter than no words were necessary.
And yet there are words, and swirling, emotional, overblown music. The commentary wasn't as bad as on some documentaries I've seen recently, but I found myself wishing that the magical red button offered an option to view the pictures with only the ambient recorded sound: no commentary and no music. If there could be a further option for a discrete, on-demand caption giving the Latin and common name of any of the species featured, that would be the icing on the cake. As it is, I'm tempted to listen with the TV muted, but then I would have missed the beautiful sounds of wolves howling, the craak of the raven and the huffing breath of bison and elk.
1 After I decided that I couldn't be a vet because I was too soft and couldn't stand seeing animals in pain every day. ↑