Seven Worlds, One Planet review – breathtaking, moving, harrowing

David Attenborough and the BBC play us like pianos – and at this point in the evolution of natural history TV, they are maestros. Prepare to weep

A face-off between a penguin and a giant leopard seal in Seven Worlds, One Planet.

A face-off between a penguin and a giant leopard seal in Seven Worlds, One Planet. Photograph: BBC NHU

Any nature programme is now, in essence, just a list of things we’re killing. A record for posterity (whatever that looks like) of what we once had and fished, boiled and starved to death via climate breakdown. But if you can set aside the growing sense of fiddling with the remote control while Rome and every single other point on the globe burns, there is still much to enjoy in the latest offering from the BBC: Seven Worlds, One Planet.

Each earthly continent gets an episode narrated by David Attenborough (can you imagine the calls from the agent of any land mass whose wasn’t?), beginning with the one we only noticed 200 years ago – Antarctica. In spring, king penguin chicks, endlessly adorable and absurd, mass on St Andrew’s Bay beach in South Georgia under strict instructions from their parents (who are no more able to tell them apart than we are, unless they can hear their voices) not to move, but toddle off to investigate seedheads and elephant seals regardless.

In summer, humpback whales blow spiralling walls of bubbles in the southern ocean to corral some of the 400 trillion krill in existence into banquet-sized groups so they can survive the rest of the year. In autumn, teenage chicks and pups do their best to avoid predators and grow to adulthood. In winter, only the deep sea life continues unperturbed as the sea above them freezes at a rate of 40,000 sq miles a day. Sea anemones catch jellyfish and feast for four days. Three-metre-long worms ripple across rocks. Hermaphroditic white frills known as nudibranchs fertilise each other. Blue and orange starfish continue to starfish as they have for millennia.

David Attenborough in Seven Worlds, One Planet.

David Attenborough in Seven Worlds, One Planet. Photograph: Alex Board/BBC NHU

As ever, the makers play us like pianos and at this stage of natural history television’s evolution they are maestros. Majesty – snowy wastelands! The largest congregation of feeding whales ever filmed! – is followed by melancholy. Warming glaciers are calving so rapidly that their floating rubble masks the penguins’ enemies from them – and the depredations against the environment and its wildlife are putting their function as a massive carbon sponge for the world in jeopardy.

The real David Attenborough

Triumph is followed by disaster, or as close to the latter as they think we can bear. And there is the emotionally pulverising set piece. This one was provided by the albatross chick blown out of its nest by one of the increasingly violent storms (for which we and our climate-convulsing ways are also responsible) and its desperate attempts, amid the lifeless bodies of even less fortunate babies, to clamber back in. It chirped uselessly at its mother, who ignored it utterly. Adult albatross recognise their offspring only by virtue of them being on the nests where they left them. Watching the chick flail at the feet of its oblivious parent was every childhood nightmare made flesh. At last, it got there, and was tucked under the warm maternal belly once more. The creatures around which the mini-narratives centre have an almost suspiciously uniform tendency to survive while their compatriots die, but if there are shenanigans or filmic sleight-of-hand going on here, let the record show that I consider this very much in the tradition of public service.

The show concludes, as is customary, on a hopeful note: the recovery of the southern right whales.

The show concludes, as is customary, on a hopeful note: the recovery of the southern right whales. Photograph: Stephen Bradley/BBC NHU

It was all as gorgeous, breathtaking, moving and harrowing as we have come to expect from this world-leading branch of the BBC. There is nothing to criticise or cavil at here, unless you consider yourself to be on sufficiently high moral ground to whine that it and Attenborough could have started leveraging their power to highlight the environmental crisis some time before they did.

We exited, as is customary, on a hopeful note: the recovery of the southern right whales since the ban on commercial whaling (adhered to, the programme noted with a level of detail unusual enough to be considered pointed, by all except Japan, Norway and Iceland) in 1986. 35 remaining females have become a population of 2,000.

So on, possibly, we go.

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Lucy Mangan @LucyMangan