The Doc Fix


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

Sir David Attenborough: the wrong message

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Sir David Attenborough has been involved in many great documentaries. But there have been occasions when the storytelling has suffered. Not his fault, necessarily, but they involve him.

See this criticism of 'Dinosaurs: The Final Day' from The Daily Telegraph newspaper:

Usually, in films and series like these, the throughline is his strong point. Instead, at the very end of The Final Day, after 90 minutes of catastrophising, we were jolted into a major key and told that in fact, what we were supposed to take from the programme was an environmental message. A message tacked onto the end of the film.

Here are those lines:

We are unique in our ability to learn from the distant past. Now we must use that ability wisely … to protect the millions of species for whom, alongside us, this planet is home.

On the other hand, the left-leaning Guardian quoted those same lines approvingly. In the body of the review they said:

Lurching from abject despair at our contemporary role in this history to profound awe at our ability to unearth its deep mysteries. The signature Attenborough cocktail of feelings, then. One of my scribbled notes simply reads: “We are the asteroid."

The same programme, two different responses.

One rule I make is that any programme that tells you what the film is about at the end of the film has failed. It's the perfect approach to creating resistance to getting your message across.

Honestly, if you've spent 90 minutes watching a story, do you really need a few lines at the end to tell you what you've been watching and why?

By stating what your story means at the end, you are implying that the storytelling itself wasn't strong enough to prove it. To those that already believe you, that's not such a problem. But to those you are trying to persuade, you have just given them a reason to reject your idea.

So the people who it is most important to persuade were the least likely to connect with the idea.

Someone in production was told that those lines were necessary - and important. Wherever that well-meaning kind of advice comes along it's essential to be able to fight back for the good of your story.

And the best tool is knowledge. (In this case, it's about being able to build a compelling thematic argument - a quick module on our program, that by itself can transform the impact of your film).

All the best - Nigel‚Äč