Originally going to air nine years ago (in November 1993), the BBC’s remarkable six-part documentary series Life in the Freezer broke new ground in the filming of the Antarctic continent, its surrounds and the life that inhabits it. The least hospitable place on the planet - at least to humans - Antarctica is nevertheless the home of a thriving community of animals, birds and fish life, all of it adapting to life in the coldest place on earth. Under the guidance of series producer Alastair Fothergill - who would later make the remarkable and even more ambitious Blue Planet series for the BBC - a determined and resilient team of filmmakers and technicians braved the elements to document what life is like in nature’s freezer. Joining them was narrator David Attenborough, whose reputation for getting in amongst it was going to mean quite a few pieces to camera in sub-zero conditions.
Any documentary about this part of the world, of course, means penguins and plenty of them. Penguin buffs will be beside themselves with glee at the sheer scope of the penguin coverage here, from the punk attitude of the truly unpleasant macaroni penguins through to the giant-wind-up-toy persona of the big Emperors. Sure, there are plenty of seals, albatrosses and the odd killer whale, but ultimately the stars of this show are the penguins; you’ll learn more about these (mostly) affable creatures in the space of this three-hour tour than you would from a lifetime of Frank Sinatra videos (and that lifetime of Frank videos can, by the way, also be found on DVD).
The six episodes in this compact series run just under 30 minutes apiece, each focussing on a particular section of the Antarctic world. Each episode also offers at least one memorable “Attenborough versus nature” moment, as the great man tries to do his commentary to camera and not notice the impending doom right beside him.
1. The Bountiful Sea: As he tells us about the Southern Antarctic Ocean, Attenborough is mistaken by a bunch of penguins for one of their own, and then is nearly beaten up by a narky albatross. We also visit the Penguin Big Day Out, where parents come to pick up their kids, lost in a crowd of tens of thousands.
2. The Ice Retreats: Spring arrives, and Attenborough gets up close and personal with an elephant seal whose single mission in life is defending his harem of 100 girl seals. They call this guy “the Beachmaster”, and Dave’s about to find out why this ugliest of creatures (it looks, essentially, like a giant menacing lump of snot) is not the kind of thing you want to be doing television behind.
3. The Race To Breed: Summer arrives, and there’s a lot of mating going on. So when Attenborough tries to interrupt a bull seal with other things on its mind, nobody’s all that surprised when it tries to biff him. “Now now,” says Attenborough to the seal, as though it were a petulant child. Meanwhile, a bunch of macaroni penguins manage to sink a mini-iceberg all on their own.
4. The Door Closes: As the brief summer fades quickly away and ice re-forms, Attenborough sits on a rock and gently smiles at a bunch of macaroni penguins repeatedly trying - and failing - to jump up there with him.
5. The Big Freeze: As things get seriously cold, Attenborough wisely takes the safe option and does his piece to camera next to a completely non-threatening granite boulder. Meanwhile, we see the extraordinary life of the emperor penguin.
6. Footsteps in the Snow: Half documentary on man’s journeys into this inhospitable land, and half “making-of” featurette, this episode emphasises just how difficult it is to work and live in Antarctica, and how annoying it must have been for early explorer Scott, who got to the South Pole only to find he’d been scooped. Appropriately, these days the South Pole is now marked by... a pole!
Made in the pre-digital BBC era, this series is naturally presented as it was broadcast, in full-frame 4:3 format. Picture quality is good while never really stunning, though with the amazing images on offer here few will be stopping to wonder about technical matters. It’s perfectly adequate for what’s being presented - and after all, these are the original TV masters you’re seeing here, so it’s not getting any better than this!
Video encoding is generally good, though there’s the occasional appearance of a barely-visible set of vertical “lines” (which may well have been on the master, but not visible on television) and one or two brief occurrences of macro-blocking caused by our old encoding enemy water.
Bizarre decision of the year award, though, goes to the person who decided on the placement of the layer change. Rather than put three episodes on one layer and the other three on the next, the disc authors have opted for RSDL format and stuck a layer change five minutes into episode 4, causing a noticeable jarring pause. Go figure.
As always with BBC discs released in this country, the master was supplied by the BBC themselves and is identical in every way to what will be released in the UK.