Continuing in the spectacular tradition of “Planet Earth” and “Life,” Discovery’s “Frozen Planet” is another beautifully mounted addition to what’s fast becoming a golden age of nature documentaries, this time focusing on “Our planet’s last true wilderness,” Earth’s poles. Granted, parts of the series feel like a rehash of “March of the Penguins,” but there’s enough jaw-dropping footage in this seven-part undertaking — including one installment devoted strictly to how the footage was captured — that nobody with even vague interest in the subject matter should be left feeling cold.
Narrated by Alec Baldwin in the U.S. version (David Attenborough does the honors in the U.K.), the program is loosely divided into key thematic sections — “The Ends of the Earth” and “On Thin Ice,” as well as “Spring,” “Summer” and “Winter” — in what amounts to the globe’s most inhospitable region for life.
Cashing in on all the breathtaking HD imagery, the narration rightly notes the topography of these places “seem to be borrowed from fairy tales … dominated and shaped by the ice,” including startling ice caverns, enormous glaciers and expanses resembling something out of “Star Wars” or “The Lord of the Rings.”
Shot by land, sea and air, there’s a little something for everyone here, including killer whales, wolves, penguins and seals. A male polar bear is not only captured mating with a female (rare footage, we’re told), but then fending off other amorous males, until he’s hobbled and his white fur becomes a blood-splattered pink.
Indeed, there’s not an abundance of sentimentality or cuteness in “Frozen Planet,” which features several instances of mortal combat between hunter and prey, as well as brutal battles over access to females and whale pods acting in unison to sweep seals off ice floes and into the proverbial frying pan. A sequence involving a wolf and bison is especially riveting, and for some will no doubt be hard to watch.
The lighter moments, however, are also constructed with great care, including “criminal penguins” who pilfer rocks from each other in order to build their nests.
Because the elements are so severe, it’s also fascinating to absorb the behind-the-scenes material and realize what sort of crazy bastards it takes to endure months of sub-frigid temperatures to come away with a few minutes of cinematic magic.
The viability of these nature productions — made possible by international support, since the images transcend geography — is one of the nifty consequences of enhanced TV technology, bringing these beastly adventures to life more vividly than ever. And Discovery has reinforced the best aspects of its brand by investing in documentaries that are both entertaining and genuinely enlightening, in a way so much of the unscripted fare populating these channels isn’t.
Discovery will bookend the five-week run with two-hour presentations, getting a jump on what figures to be a reasonably brutal competitive stretch for quality fare on Sunday nights, with programs like “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” returning.
Still, “Frozen Planet” brings its own meaning to the latter’s catchphrase “Winter is coming.” And seldom has its arrival looked more impressive than this.