David is an alpha male, a born leader and the one everyone looks up to. But he is getting on in life, and his grip on power is under threat from pretenders to his crown…
David is a chimpanzee living in Senegal.
His story begins a ground-breaking natural history series narrated by another (human) David who is also at the top of his game: the legendary broadcaster David Attenborough.
What is fresh about Dynasties is its focus on a surprising and compelling aspect of animal life: their political skills.
Just like humans, Dynasties explains, creatures who live in groups develop finely honed strategies aimed to negotiate complex social dynamics. The survival of your genes – and your species – depends on it, whether you’re ape, lion or penguin.
In episode one, David (the chimp) is shown warily watching rival younger males who may be out to supplant him. He spends a lot of time grooming and helping older males who could help him, but are too seasoned to launch a power bid of their own.
The head chimp also becomes the subject of a brutal and bloody coup attempt by younger rival males. The females tend his injury body before deserting him to move off in search of desperately needed water. What happens next is even more extraordinary…
Dynasties is more akin to a political thriller than a traditional natural history series. We follow the chimpanzees over two years, while the other episodes in the series penguins, lions, wild dogs and tigers.
Naturalist Chris Packham summed up the approach nicely at the premiere screening of Dynasties when he said, “It’s all about primate politics, with a bit of general day-to-day biology on top”.
Episode two focuses on emperor penguins, specifically the penguin huddle which the birds use to survive the extreme cold. The male penguins pack tightly together in order to incubate the eggs while the females leave to feed.
We meet lions in the third programme, focusing on a 14-year old lioness called Charm who leads a pride after the males have largely left. The ‘painted wolf’ (another name for the wild dog) is the focus in episode four, and the series ends with tigers.
Reflecting on what animals do to survive inevitably leads the programme makers to reflect on what we humans are doing to the animal kingdom.
All the animals are in some way under threat: their habitats are in danger, mainly because of human activity. As with all recent Attenborough series, the series carries a very explicit environmental message.
There is also an extraordinary sequence in the lions film when herdsman, frustrated by the pride’s attack on their cattle, attempt to combat the threat from the big cats – with devastating consequences.
That says Attenborough is where he wants the series’ ‘legacy’ to lie. While recent series such as Blue Planet II have highlighted the problem with plastic pollution, if Dynasties has a message to the planet, it’s about the loss of space and habitat.
“When you think of the range, going from the South Pole to West Africa, the common factor, the common concern, the common worry, is space and allowing animals space,” says Attenborough.
Citing the problem of growing populations in India under increasing threat of attacks by man-eating tigers, he says, “Telling shots [in Dynasties] show the encroachment of human population and that is the case in every one of these animals.”
He adds, “It’s an acceptance that they are under pressure, and it’s a very difficult thing to deal with.
“Men, women and children need space, but how do you solve this? It’s raising people’s recognition that animals have a right to some sort of space that this series is doing.”
Dynasties begins on BBC1 on Sunday 11 November 2018
This article was originally published in November 2018