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Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Dynasties’ Picks Up Where ‘Planet Earth,’ ‘Blue Planet II’ Left Off
November 8, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

The world is flat. We’re living in a wired global village, where — in cyberspace, anyway, or anywhere there’s a TV set or laptop with a satellite hookup or a link to the Internet — a TV show that airs on one side of the planet can be seen anywhere else on Earth, virtually instantly, in real time.

In theory, anyway.

That’s instructive today because, this weekend, Dynasties, the latest epic natural history series from David Attenborough and the BBC’s Natural History Unit, is about to debut on BBC One in the UK and, days later, on premium cable’s BBC Earth in Canada. (Dynasties will bow in the US on BBC America in January, and will be simulcast across four cable channels that are part of the AMC Networks family: IFC, AMC, BBC America, and Sundance, in much the same way BBC America did with Dynasties’ antecedents Planet Earth II and, earlier this year, Blue Planet II.)

And while the postponed US premiere date is likely to cause some confusion at first, look at it this way: At least they didn’t call it Dynasty. (Dynasty was the original working title of the new program, by the way, early in the production process; the producers changed it to Dynasties, in part perhaps because they didn’t want to confuse their nature follow-up to Blue Planet II with a classic ‘80s primetime soap that had already been remade once, in 2017.)

Millions of viewers around the world will discover Dynasties, starting Sunday. And while many of the signature tags are the same as those in Blue Planet and Planet Earth — Attenborough’s enthusiastic voice-over, with its childlike wonder; astounding, never-seen-before camera footage years in the making, etc. — this is a new kind of nature event, more in keeping structurally with the personalized, family-driven stories of Meerkat Manor than the familiar epic sweep of the Planet programs.

Dynasties is five episodes, featuring five of the most celebrated but endangered animals on the planet: A chimpanzee, a lion, a tiger, an African wild dog, and a penguin. Each episode focuses on the family leader of one of the five animals over a period of several years, as they battle overwhelming odds for their own survival and that of their families.

Their life stories are both deeply personal and Shakespearean in scope. Dynasties’ camera crews joined these animals and their families at a critical moment in their lives. The first episode focuses on a chimpanzee looking to consolidate his leadership of the clan against rivals, all the while trying to navigate life on the edge of the Sahara.

Four of the five animals are apex predators, and the story’s theme revolves around survival of the fittest and strongest; the fifth episode, about penguins, focuses on survival of the most adaptable. Where lions, tigers, and even chimpanzees rely on a single matriarch or patriarch as leader, penguins rely on community and the need for group cooperation in one of the harshest climates on Earth.

To say Dynasties is emotionally wrenching is an understatement. If there was a complaint to be made about programs like Blue Planet and Planet Earth — and it was a very minor complaint indeed — it was that viewers witnessed some of the most majestic animals on Earth in fleeting glimpses only. There was little opportunity to get inside those animals’ lives, to see what they experience in their day-to-day struggle to survive. Dynasties flips that around. It’s impossible to get away from those individual lives.

And it can be undeniably tough to watch at times. One of the promises producers made to themselves — and their audience — was that in the many hundreds of hours and days they spent in a single, iconic location, following the particular family of animals they were assigned to, they would show both the tragedy and the euphoria of the fight to survive.

Dynasties is gender neutral, much like the animal world it depicts: The lion episode, counterintuitive to what most viewers might believe about the king of beasts, focuses on a lioness, abandoned by her male protectors, forced to fend for herself and her cubs on the Maasai Mara grasslands in Kenya, part of the vast — and world-famous — Serengeti ecosystem. The episode on African wild dogs revolves around the feud between a mother and her daughter — Queen Lear meets Macbeth — and how that feud threatens to tear the pack apart, figuratively and literally.

If Dynasties succeeds as information and science as well as entertainment, that’s because the producing team didn’t simply go into the field with their 2018 technology cameras and sound rigs, and simply wait and see what happened, fly-on-the-wall style. In the tradition of Attenborough and the Natural History Unit (BBC’s in-house version of the US Discovery Channel), the producers — led by Emmy-winning Planet Earth veteran Mike Gunton and Rupert Barrington — worked closely with behavioral scientists, trackers, guides and field biologists who have studied these animals their entire careers. The result is that Dynasties’ camera crews were able to get closer to rare and often elusive animals than any previous nature program, including their own. They followed each family every day, come what may, no matter the conditions. Over time, they learned to identify and understand each member of the family group and interpret the significance of their nearly every move.

It goes without saying that, with that kind of access and day-to-day scrutiny, Dynasties’ cameras captured moments never witnessed before, not even by scientists in the field.

As to why programs like Planet Earth and Blue Planet II have proved so popular with audiences, Gunton insisted in an interview with BBC that there’s no secret.

“With Blue Planet II (in particular), the world was in a strange place politically and environmentally,” Gunton told BBC. “And so people were almost closing in on themselves and their lives. Then this series comes along and it shows that there’s a whole different side to our world. Through the intensity of the stories and the way they’re filmed, you share other animals’ trials and tribulations. That somehow puts our own trials and tribulations into perspective.”

And how.

Dynasties will debut on AMC and BBC America in January, and you will read more about that here in TVWW, closer to the date.

In the meantime, for those who can’t wait, the curtain goes up on the most anticipated nature series event of the past 12 months this weekend, Sunday, on BBC One, and later in the week on Canada’s BBC Earth.

Think of it as Dynasty 2.0, but this time with real catfights.

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