The Bad Guys
I’m a bit late in getting to this documentary series, due to the temptation to accumulate lots of programmes on iPlayer, and then not having the time to watch them. Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth is an odd duck, combining the usual authoritative talking heads with a dramatic reconstruction of a hypothetical encounter between Homo sapiens and Homo erectus. Or Us and Them.
Homo erectus was an extraordinarily successful hominid species, which thrived for 1.8 million years and died out in India about 75,000 years ago. It survived in Asia for another 45,000 years. We should be so lucky. They walked upright, were champion runners (all the better for hunting down prey), used stone tools and fire, and had rudimentary speech. Like us, they formed close family units and cared for the sick. The difference lay in our bigger brains, ability to think more imaginatively, and better developed speech faculties. So we could make plans for the future and communicate them to others. But we weren’t as fast or strong as Homo erectus.
The Toba volcanic eruption in Indonesia, 75,000 years ago, spewed ash over much of India, destroying vegetation and creating a volcanic winter. The documentary suggests that it caused the extinction of Homo erectus in the subcontinent. At the same time, Homo sapiens was spreading out of Africa and into India. So, clash of species and a battle for scarce food resources.
The docudrama presents a plucky, good-looking sapiens family migrating through India and coming up against an erectus family. There’s Mum and Dad, and their teenage Son. Mum drinks tainted water, a byproduct of the eruption, and is temporarily hors de combat. Dad is captured, killed, and eaten by the erectus family. Son is left in charge of sick Mum, as they hide in a cave from the erecti, hungry and dying of thirst. Until the Wise Old Stranger Woman (WOSW) shows up in their cave with water in a handy dandy canteen made out of an ostrich egg. She, it seems, has had her family wiped out by the erecti. The sapiens family and WOSW do have names, but I spaced out on which one belongs to who. Never was good with names. In contrast, only one of the erectus family is named, and there’s no clear familial connection spelled out between them.
You see the problem? This is pure Hollywood. And it’s not even very good Hollywood. The title of the documentary shouts out the provenance of this wholesome family drama, as they battle against the odds to reach safety and a chance of propagating their genes. True, there are clips of various professorial types explaining the science behind the drama, interspersed between the scenes. Like advertising slots in a soap opera. But no amount of fair-minded talk about how admirable Homo erectus was makes up for seeing one of them smash Dad’s head in with a stone. And later eat him, although we only see the bones, what they left on the plate as it were. More than that, the treatment of the sapiens family is eye-wateringly, toe-curlingly politically correct.
Anyway, WOSW suggests leaving for a place where she knows there’s food and water, but sneaks out in the middle of the night after hearing Son talk about stealing her water. So Mum and Son try to get away by themselves the next day, taking in the erectus family cave en route, where they discover the leftovers of Dad. Son, however, is basically a good boy. He tries to give water to the sick erectus they find there, who attempts to whack him with a rock. So we know they’re a bad lot and it’s alright to kill them.
Discovered in the cave, they make their escape helped by WOSW, who really has a forgiving nature. In order to demonstrate how sapiens were able to think ahead, she throws her canteen between the two erecti trying to kill the captured Son. He gets away while one erectus kills the other for its possession. Thereby also demonstrating that erectus was stupid as well as bad (tick appropriate box). And so the sapiens continue their quest for food and water, pursued by a couple of erecti.
Trouble is, there’s a bloody great desert in the way. And a sandstorm, which buries one pursuing erectus and shows us how clever sapiens are in making a tent for shelter. Cue long vistas of sand dunes and much trudging, with absolutely zero narrative tension because you know they’re going to make it to the other side.
And so they do, splashing into the waves like holidaymakers on their first day at the seaside. Ah, but wait, what about the other erectus? Dang! There he is charging at them. Until Son remembers how Mum taught him to use a sling shot. The last erectus in India falls, pole-axed, into the waves of the Arabian Sea.
There’s more. Mum notices a shell on the beach that looks like the one on WOSW’s necklace. WOSW has found her home! And there it is, just down the beach! The perfect little Club Arabia village for upwardly mobile Homo sapiens.
Well, not quite. There’s still the extinction of the Neanderthals in the next episode. I can see I’m going to have some problems with that one, since I’m very fond of the Neanderthals.