I’m watching the BBC series South Pacific on DVD at the moment, and I’m up to the third episode. The series has beautiful cinematography: astonishing ultra-slow-motion footage of waves breaking on Pohnpei was the centrepiece of the first episode, and I’m not going to forget the creepy carnivorous caterpillars in action in Hawaii or the tiger sharks eating the albatross fledglings.
But the series is very much suffering from being “thematic” in the way that many modern museum collections are: without historical or geographic context, a loose set of narratives on a theme is forgettable. Set-pieces become nothing more than passing fancy for the eyes, with only the shocking or unexpected being committed to memory. It’s a great shame – as someone who works on Austronesian cultural diversity and comes from Oceania, it’s always disappointed me that there’s not been a good television series on the natural and cultural history of the Pacific. This series aspires to be that, but it’s a string of anecdotes, lurching from zoology to weather to culture, picking out the amazing (vine-jumping Pentecost Islanders from Vanuatu) and the extreme (freezing Macquarie Island with its penguins and elephant seals), with no contextual background of what the biology of the region is like as a whole, or how the fascinating and complex human settlement history has shaped the social and cultural diversity of today.
Most disappointly, the anthropology has made me cringe. The series is narrated (albeit by the splendid Benedict Cumberbatch) rather than having interviewers or allowing people to speak, and it all comes across as terribly touristic and superficial. Anutans were glowing described as people living in mystical harmony with their tiny atoll environment, and contrasted with those rapacious Rapa Nui who used up all their resources. You would think there was no-one living on Easter Island today, because all we got were atmospheric shots of the moai.