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Six-Part 'Hostile Planet' Debuts on National Geographic
April 1, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Most nature documentaries at some point acknowledge that life in the wild isn’t as romantic as it looks to us domesticated bipeds.

The ominously titled Hostile Planet, a six-part series that launches Monday at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic, focuses on how hard basic survival remains for most living species.

While Hostile Planet is kin to other recent wildlife series like the acclaimed Blue Planet, its focus is bracing enough that it will jar those who prefer the scenes in which beautiful and exotic creatures successfully navigate their challenging worlds.

The episodes here are divided into types of terrain – ocean, jungle, grasslands, etc. – and Monday’s kickoff episode, focusing on mountains, doesn’t waste any time getting to one of those bracing moments.

Camera crews zero in on a mating pair of barnacle geese who nest atop a 400-foot rock formation.

Location, location, location. It’s a brilliant defense against predators with one drawback. The newly hatched chicks must begin feeding within 36 hours, and in order to do so, they need to reach a patch of grassland a mile away. At the foot of the rocks.

Since their wings aren’t yet developed enough for flight, they have to leave the nest and jump. It’s a 400-foot freefall, to a landing that is at best on a patch of snow and more likely on either hard land or more rocks. Did we mention that they will also bounce off the side of the jagged rock formation on the way down?

The crew films three of these jumps which are as breathtaking and suspenseful as any dramatic moment on Game of Thrones or Killing Eve. It’s clear that not every plunge will have a happy ending. Less clear is whether any of them will.

Well, okay, some animals do survive their moments of extreme peril, like the 10 percent of sea turtles that actually make it from their hatchling nest in the sand to the safety of the ocean.

Or the bison calves who outrun or fend off a herd of hungry wolves chasing them through two feet of snow.

Or the baby elephants who must be protected by the older elephants for the first year, when a third of the calves don’t make it.

As we have come to expect from top-grade nature series, much of the film here is astonishing, and we can only imagine what it took to capture these particular moments and make them look so vivid.

Title notwithstanding, Hostile Planet isn’t a bloodfest, hovering vulture-like over its subjects. Its kill shots, while inevitable, are neither graphic nor lingering.

Narrator Bear Grylls instead uses those moments to reinforce a primary theme: that where we often focus on the part where fascinating creatures adapt to extreme living conditions, the individual animals have no guarantee that will happen. They often must spend their lives fighting steep odds, keeping a vigilant eye on predators and nature itself.

Grylls tucks in multiple warnings every episode about climate change and the impact it is having on wild species.

As desert areas like Australia warm, drought and parched habitat become more of an issue for animals like the red kangaroo. As oceans warm, fish must move to cooler waters, rearranging the balance there. Snow leopards need ever-expanding ranges to find prey like deer species that have an ever-harder time surviving themselves.

Hostile Planet isn’t a feel-good series you want to watch with your 5-year-old. At the same time, it doesn’t ignore the beauty and delight of watching our fellow species just hanging out in the jungle or the ocean being themselves.

That the message is familiar doesn’t make it any less true: Nature can be one of our best friends and one of our worst enemies.

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