TV

Plants are still running the world… but new David Attenborough series The Green Planet shows they need our help

As BBC1’s latest landmark Natural History series, Green Planet, launches we get a new view of life on planet plant

The Green Planet – The winged seeds of the Dipterocarp tree, Danum Valley, Borneo. Image: BBC Studios

Who runs the world? Plants. That is a key message from The Green Planet, the latest landmark series fronted by Sir David Attenborough for the BBC which starts on January 9.

But there is a deeper message. One that has been ringing louder and louder through the BBC Natural History Unit’s output over recent years: we have to help our benevolent veggie overlords save the world for us before it is too late.

This is the perfect series to start 2022. A year when we all have to do better – starting with the world’s governments who can, after all, make the biggest impact in fighting the climate crisis.

The Green Planet is a series of great drama. A series that shows nature has the greatest writers’ room of them all. Forget Breaking Bad and the Sopranos, the best scripts are produced by the natural world. They are full of triumphant underdogs, unlikely partnerships, and networks of secret underworld connections so complex that even The Wire’s Lester Freamon would be flummoxed.

Take ‘Tropical World’, the opening episode produced by Paul Williams. We watch agog as trees in the Costa Rican rainforest do battle with unseen giant fungi foe, well out of reach of their branches or roots, hidden deep beneath the forest floor. Leafcutter ants are the pawns here in a much bigger game. And it is astonishing to witness.

Each combatant uses defence systems honed over centuries, sending messages via chemical changes carried by millions of unwitting worker ants. The tree and fungi’s back-and-forth slugfest is more reminiscent of Rocky and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV than anything on Gardener’s World.

The Green Planet

And the drama is captured in incredibly sharp detail by moving time-lapse cameras. The technology is mind-bending. We can follow the pollen. Follow the ants. Track them up tall trees and down deep into the earth towards their ferocious fungal feeders.

Then there is the seven-hour flower. It comes out for one night only, attracting the attention of local bats. This flower feeds the bats – but not too much – ensuring the mammals carry its pollen to other flowers in search of more.

If a tree falls in the rainforest, does it make a sound? Well, yes. Of course it does. But it also causes an unruly cavalcade of competition between trees and plants fighting for access to the light that can now shine through in the space it once occupied.

“This is a battlefield” says Attenborough, gazing down from a Costa Rican cable car. Seedlings that may have lain dormant on the forest floor for years are sparked into sudden action as the sun blasts through the jungle canopy. It becomes a race. A cat and mouse chase towards the sun. One plant starts out well but is strangled by a vine. Can that voracious vine bring down the fast-growing balsa tree? The tension is real.

The Green Planet is wild. And is a dizzying refresher for anyone who last thought about photosynthesis in Mr Pollard’s science class in 1987.

It becomes clear that the animals we tend to focus on are, so often, doing the plants’ bidding – providing the muscular fauna as the flora compete to survive, driven to act by their plant bosses.

Attenborough also quotes Darwin, who spoke of “primeval forests, un-defaced by the hand of man”. He notes that we would struggle to find such a place today. Another earth-shattering statistic: 70% of the earth’s rainforest land is now within a mile of a road or clearing. How has it come to this?

Another welcome new development, though. The Green Planet‘s beguiling series opener is not just about the problems facing the rainforest (and hence the entire planet).

The BBC’s Natural History Unit is increasingly confident in proposing solutions to tackle the climate crisis. And it is explicit here about the possibility of remarrying fragments of forest together, reconnecting forests and nature’s pathways, expanding the plant world to help save the human world.

“We must take what might well be our last chance to save the rainforest and help the tropical world to heal itself,” says Attenborough. And we really must. Our homework starts here.

The Green Planet starts on BBC1 on 9 January

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