After 65 years on the job, Attenborough worked on a fresh triumph


"Planet Earth II" may be the best TV series of this season ... or of most seasons. It's a brilliantly crafted documentary series ... as good, perhaps, as the original was a decade ago. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When it comes to
wildlife, you'd think that David Attenborough has seen it all.

He started working
for BBC television 65 years ago – back when he didn't own a TV set
and had only seen one show. He became an on-camera “presenter” 61
years ago, traveling the globe.

But here is
Attenborough at 90, narrating the spectacular “Planet Earth 2”
and talking passionately about its details. There's “that fox,
going after its little rodent, which is down beneath the snow.”

The rodent seems
safe there, but the fox tracks it with precise hearing. “The only
way it's going to get down there quick enough to catch it is to dive
headfirst into the snow,” Attenborough said. “And it's a very
effective technique – quite risky, I would have thought.”

Such moments keep
refreshing a genre that Attenborough and his British colleagues have
perfected.

The original “Planet
Earth” was an 11-hour marvel. It won four Emmys (including
“outstanding nonfiction series”) and a Peabody Award; the
Television Critics Association gave it the group's top awards for
news and for movies or miniseries.

A decade later, this
seven-hour sequel is coming to the U.S., after similar success in
England. It “was a ratings phenomenon and cultural event, ...
reaching over half the (United Kingdom) population,” said Sarah
Barnett, president of BBC America, which debuts it Saturday.

The key question was
whether a sequel could find fresh material. It could, said producer
Mike Gunton, because of improved technology. Drone photography has
soared in the past decade -- “the skill of the pilots has
exponentially increased” -- and motion-sensor cameras thrive.

As a result,
Attenborough said, filmmakers are “doing things we thought were
quite impossible up to about five years ago” -- including getting
the most elusive of subjects, the snow leopard.

“Only two can
exist in about a hundred square miles of the ... Himalayas,”
Attenborough said, but filmmakers were “able to get the amazingly
intimate shots .... I think it's magical.”

At times, sheer
persistence is needed. One example was filming the penguins of
Savodovski Island.

That's “1,200
miles away from the Falkland Islands,” said producer Elizabeth
White. “It's an epic trip. You have to fly down there; you then
join a very small yacht and you sail through the roughest ocean on
Earth for seven or eight days, to (reach) this little spot of land
that's actually an active volcano.”

Attenborough said he
was surprised they did it. “I thought they were barmy.”

This project brings
many surprises, from unpopulated islands to overpopulated cities.
“New York city has the highest density of breeding peregrine
falcons of any place in the world, “ Attenborough said.

Really. The world of
Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the Yankees also has falcons swooping
down.

“Skyscrapers
replicate the conditions under which the peregrine falcons evolve –
places where then can exploit the updraft of the air and where they
can find good prey, which are pigeons,” Attenborough said. “I
thought that that sequence shot in New York was really a sensation.”

This is the tone of
someone who still seems to savor his work after 65 years ... and who
does it well. A decade ago, the American version of “Planet Earth”
stripped off Attenborough's voice and replaced him with Sigourney
Weaver. “I never understood why,” Gunton said.

This time (with Hans
Zimmer, a nine-time Oscar-nominee doing the music), Attenborough does
the narration for both countries. “It is like a virtuoso
performance,” Gunton said. “It's one take ... the enthusiasm, the
passion, the dynamic storytelling cannot be replicated by doing
retakes.”

-- “Planet Earth
II,” 9 p.m. and midnight ET (6 and 9 p.m. PT) Saturdays, BBC
America

-- Seven weeks,
starting with “Islands” on Feb. 18 and “Mountains” on Feb. 25

-- The opener will
also be shown at 9 p.m. Feb. 18 on AMC and Sundance; BBC America will
rerun it Thursday, Feb. 23, at 9 p.m. and midnight ET.

-- Reruns from the
original “Planet Earth” will fill the rest of the BBC America
time, from 6 a.m. ET Saturday to 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 18-19..