In late 2018, BBC Earth aired their newest David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary series, Dynasties. BBC America shall soon (on Saturday, Jan. 16) bring this incredible viewing experience across the pond, and you’ve never seen anything quite like this natural history production. That’s because the folks behind Planet Earth II, including executive producer Mike Gunton, went all in to top themselves with a truly immersive experience. For years, Gunton’s crews followed specific families from five endangered species — lions, chimpanzees, tigers, painted wolves (African wild dogs), and emperor penguins — during pivotal periods in which their survival was at stake.
The cameras eventually emerged to tell these animals’ stories in extraordinarily vivid detail while saluting leaders and heroes through tragedy and triumph. Viewers will watch a pride of lions confront an unyielding series of threats, including a white-knuckle attack (on one lion by 20 hyenas), which is heartbreaking to witness but arrives with an ultimately life-affirming ending. Additionally, an alpha chimpanzee struggles to maintain his power against rivals, both a tigress and a painted wolf navigate potentially deadly family feuds, and a massive dynasty of penguins endure the cruelest winter on Earth. Gunton was gracious enough to speak with us at length about the rewarding experiences of making and watching Dynasties.
This is definitely a more intense viewing experience than Planet Earth II. It’s more intimate, and you really get to know these families. What are your hopes for how an American audience will respond?
Well, I hope they’ll feel like you do. It’s a very intense, very truthful, very revealing experience, and a different experience because by adopting this approach, apart from I think appealing to that kind of dramatic structure that we have — documentaries do have a dramatic form to them — that they’ll see the natural world in a different way and probably a more realistic way because by doing it like this, you show the real warts and all the triumphs and the tragedy that actually happen in the natural world. But you couldn’t have written a script that had more twists and turns, and that just goes to the old adage that the truth is stranger than fiction. I think that people are going to have to work and invest in it, but the rewards will be enormous, I think. And unique.
You previously said that you pitched this series as possible Shakespearean drama. How do you feel about how that worked out?
I pitched it that way because it was about families, and the inevitable power struggles that happen in families are in so many of Shakespeare’s plays. I hoped that given time, and the right casting and the right research, we knew that we were going to join these families when they were about to face some kind of turmoil. If we followed them carefully enough, and in enough detail, you would get a sense that this is what Shakespeare would have written.