The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

How can Attenborough's Green Planet be improved?

Stacks Image 608

As I watched the second episode of The Green Planet, I was struck by two things.
Firstly, it had some of the most extraordinary imagery I have ever seen on a screen. It was stunningly shot in every way. Breathtaking.

And secondly, I wasn't sure what it was telling me. I had to wait until the end to find out - and it's never a good sign to be told at the end of a programme what it was about.

If it isn't obvious at that point, then your storytelling is flawed.

Here’s that ending. After a piece about how the water meadows trap carbon dioxide from our environment and could be a valuable ally in the fight against global warming, Sir David ended the episode with this:

"Today, water worlds everywhere under threat. Many of their inhabitants are disappearing without us even being aware of their existence. The plants that grow in water are probably the least noticeable; they are certainly the least studied. But the more you know about the problems of living in that way, the great the wonder of their success. Surely they deserve more of our attention, and most importantly, our care."

So, the program ended with a statement that we should care about the plants we have seen in the previous 50 minutes (plants that have been shown devising ways of surviving and flourishing in apparently inhospitable environments). And how doing so would benefit us all because, look, here's a plant that extracts Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere in large quantities.

It was all a bit confused. The final idea wasn’t linked to concepts expressed in the film as a whole. As a result, it didn't feel complete or consistent.

So, how might the programme have been made to feel more of a piece...?

If you go back to around 14 minutes in you can find the answer. It was the point when they told of the Giant Water Lily, which grew to dominate the lake and push competitors aside:

"...eventually the immense leaves totally cutting off the light from the plants beneath them. The battle is over, and victory is total".

Water Lily

That should have been the thematic argument of the film - the competition for life. The value of an individual life versus the whole. The water lily won at the cost of the other plants. So, likewise, humans are winning at the expense of other life on earth.

It felt like a hugely significant idea, but it was left hanging in the air.

What was needed was a way to integrate that thematic argument into the fabric of the documentary, without being heavy handed or preaching.

You can do that with two elements - structure and emphasis.

Each of the other smaller stories, about the ingenious ways that plants survive in inhospitable conditions, could have focussed on how nature has winners and losers, but that there is also an overall balance. Also this episode meant travelling to locations all over the planet, but we hear nothing about the connection (or lack of) between environments. How one action in nature often doesn't have the strength to harm the whole.

Structurally you then could build towards the Water Lily story. Place it closer to the film's climax, and you have it building to a concluding argument. Perhaps something like this...?

“Plants continually adapt to survive in their environment. But in some cases, such as for this lily, it’s a plant that dominates so completely it destroys the environment in which others needs to thrive. These plants are driven only by nature and the inexorable logic of evolution. Bur we, as humans, share the planet with these plants. And our intelligence and adaptability has given us a wider influence - and power. And it has also given us a choice”.

And that final piece with the water meadows - when it showed a human attempting to replant them - would then make sense as the culmination of a larger story. When we compete with other life we have the power to damage the whole planet. Our goal should be to try and create balance with competing needs.

I'm making this suggestion out of context, of course.

The series has a function. Sir David has a role that would have been discussed. I don't know what was filmed and what wasn't and so on. But I do believe that however great this programme was, and it was, it could have done more to be clear what it was about - other than showing us nature so astonishing that we should therefore care.