The first scene of episode two of South Pacific, “Castaways,” introduces in plain view the stealth-work of the series. Benedict Cumberbatch, the clipped narrator, says, “So who were those castaways, and how did they ever reach these far-flung islands?” Insular gigantism, island dwarfism, mutational ninjistics—this episode will be a showcase for the animals, we think. Yet, as Cumberbatch speaks, the camera withdraws at an excruciating creep into the sky above some island: a huddle of trees, a shallow sea, and, finally, an endless blue, with the shadow of some high clouds edging in. It’s a very patient broadening of the camera’s perspective—and, in kind, the episode will purport to chat about creaturely matters while a serious meditation on geography sneaks through.
For the best cinematic resources put to documentary service, people know to spend their hours with the BBC Science and Nature unit. Life, The Blue Planet, Human Planet, Frozen Planet, Planet Earth—each of these series delivers the relaxing, frothy soma of a skilled technical team forming a plan and sticking to it. Beyond these, though, the unit’s output feels off-brand and diminutive: Wild China? Andes to Amazon? Forget it. South Pacific seems to have escaped popular notice perhaps because its focus is so tight. There is a hint in the title, which drably describes a region, that the six-part series will offer fewer zoological thrills; even the subtitle—“One Ocean. 20,000 Islands. One Quarter of the World’s Water”—limits itself to the facts.
But the facts, in this case, turn out to be perfectly descriptive: South Pacific is a document not of nature but of space. And while it’s not a quiet study—it is a turbulent program, in fact—the conflicts are wrought through distances, the disjuncture of forms, the throwing up of existents against the fields in which they exist.
For instance, while we instinctually think of water as traversable, one archvillain turns out to be the high seas, a serious barrier to underwater travel. So we are introduced to the groupers, who overcome this obstacle via their progeny—their larvae can travel through open water to populate new reefs—and when their spawning is interrupted by a squadron of gray reef sharks, it’s a spatial dread that pervades the whole ordeal. Non-copulating groupers, Cumberbatch explains, are too quick for such predation; the only reason these groupers are prone to shark attack is that sex has stuck them into place. As if to emphasize their flattening into the conceptual ground, the scene in which we learn this is drowned out with a dusky blue—except for the gray reef sharks, who come and go freely.
South Pacific plays out a classical distinction: space on a different ontological level than its constituents, space as a stage and everything else an actor on it. Having assigned space this cardinal place, it’s no wonder the series finds it so beguiling. Introducing New Guinea, earlier in the episode, the camera dwells upon a maze of gray-green valleys while the low end of a harp burbles beneath a slinky string figure. Set to this music, the valleys feel dangerous and sly, and it’s not just easy exotic prickling: once we reach the forest floor, the wraithy harp returns, murmuring darkly in the full blare of sunlight.
The implication is that getting deep inside those valleys exacerbates, rather than taxes, the mystique—why else return to that harp, which cues an exploratory verge? We may have penetrated the forest, the music seems to say, but we can’t do more than wrap around a deeper, thornier subject. In Lovecraftian terms, this is the cosmic horror, only instead of being cosmically crushed, we’re crushed by the enormity of three terrestrial dimensions. In video-game terms, space is the boss.
One danger in judging something to be “about” space is that it’s remarkably easy for such thinking to assemble its own proofs. Describing a coconut as a “buoyant survival capsule,” for instance, hides the coconut’s urgent biological function—survival—between indicators of vertical position (buoyancy) and permeability (capsule). Just how telling is this bracketing? It seems impossible to know. Don’t we often define objects by their forms and positions?
But then the series goes ahead and signals its priorities beyond any real doubt. The only time “Castaways” ever breaches the fourth wall is when it needs to demonstrate the region’s infrastructure, the one mechanic in the survey that is wholly about spatial connectivity. In his opening line, it turns out, Cumberbatch wasn’t really asking who the castaways were, but how they moved. Animals were transported between islands by tsunamis, it seems, cradled in rafts formed of sticks and leaves. Charmingly, for illustration, the crew creates a raft, places an iguana upon it, sets it floating on the ocean, and proceeds to film it with magisterial grace.
Part of the reason Planet Earth and its cohort feel so successful is that while these incursions do happen, they are better disguised. Yet when this scenario is presented in South Pacific, the viewer remains immersed; by this point, the primacy of space has been thoroughly communicated. If you create a diorama within a documentary to show death, breeding, or feeding, there is often the sense you’re cheating. But if the best way to explain space is to dress up found existence, then by all means let existence be dressed.