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TV review: A Perfect Planet, and Winter Walks

15 January 2021

Nick Shoolingin-Jordan/Silverback Films 2019

Male and larger female red-sided garter snakes in Manitoba, Canada, in A Perfect Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough (BBC 1, Sundays)

Male and larger female red-sided garter snakes in Manitoba, Canada, in A Perfect Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough (BBC 1,...

FOR proof of God’s existence, should we look no further than BBC1’s current substitute for Sunday evensong, A Perfect Planet? Sir David Attenborough’s latest awesome series is built around the astonishing fine tuning that makes possible the infinite varieties of life on earth: we are just the right distance from the sun; our atmosphere has just the right mixture of gases; the tilt of our axis gives day and night, winter and summer, etc., etc. All coincide in ways that we now realise to be extraordinarily unlikely and surely unparalleled elsewhere in the universe.

Actually, the programme dwells far less on the underlying chemo-cosmological factors (as I had hoped), and is mainly a superbly watchable gallery of the scarcely believable ways in which different species create themselves a habitat niche in the most extreme situations. So, surely, in this limitless fecundity, we have further indication of the divine hand? Well, not for me; for, however much each segment of film encourages us to marvel at this or that creature, sooner or later we realise that its surviving depends on devouring some hapless prey.

Is not “the balance of nature” a romantic fiction: no more than stopping the clock at a particular moment in the constant dynamic struggle between killing and being killed, between exhausting sex and watching your offspring being devoured? Where is God’s morality in all this? Who will dare to make a TV documentary that takes an ethical view of nature: one that, instead of delighting sentimentally in the earth’s riches, expresses Swiftian disgust at the endless copulation, agony, and murder?

And the cosmological fine tuning also neither proves nor disproves God’s existence. To imagine that the Creator brings into being billions and billions of galaxies, so that one of them will have, among its billions of stars, a particularly undistinguished sun that will, in turn, have a minor planet, all to provide humankind with a home; to base our faith on such hubris flies in the face of all our religion teaches us.

“In the beginning there was light,” Sir David began last Sunday’s episode, provocatively dethroning God as he parodied Genesis 1, and, within his terms, he is right to do so: but much more could and should be said on the matter.

Better, perhaps, to seek the divine in God’s Own Country, such as Winter Walks (Monday to Friday of last week, BBC4): five dawn-to-dusk journeys sensibly based in Yorkshire. These meditations were earthed, the solo celebrity walkers, I’m glad to say, getting out of breath and occasionally finding the going a bit tough.

The religious quota was gratifyingly high: Selina Scott was moved by Linton’s almshouse chapel; Baroness Warsi offered a Muslim prayer at a war memorial; the Revd Richard Coles’s journey’s ended at Rievaulx Abbey. He said good things about the Cistercian life: I’d have let rip far more about the Reformation’s vile depredations.

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