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Extraordinary Animals in the Womb

Nicola Mostyn on the dark, disturbing, and then slightly dull aspects of life before birth

Published on October 28th 2008.


Extraordinary Animals in the Womb

In times of great uncertainly, there are a few things which make us feel better. Watching cuddly footage of animals is one of them. Curling up in the foetal position is another. So, huzzah for Extraordinary Animals in the Womb (Channel 4, Monday, 9pm) which brought us footage of animals….in the foetal position!

Although, actually, it’s not all that cuddly in the womb, as this documentary revealed. The film followed four creatures – sharks, kangaroos, wasps and penguins – from conception to birth, occasionally employing a jazzy split screen to persuade the casual viewer, as is the habit these days, that a nature documentary can be as gripping as an episode of Spooks. No, really, it can. Believe.

It started with the nastiest creature. Or at least, the perceived nastiest. “Shark foreplay is not for the fainthearted,” says the narrator, as though we were all set to give it a stab before that point. Then we learn something rather unexpected: “Technically, the shark has no penis.” Really? Jaws – no penis? How un-macho. Although he makes up for it by having “sperm bullets” which he fires into the female’s womb. And he’s not the only one. “In sharks, mating can be a group activity,” the narrator says saucily. Filthy creatures. Not like those penguins who are so lovely and loyal, with the dad looking after the egg while the mum goes off to get fish. Hmm, yes, cute. But not actually all that interesting…

So, onto the wasp. You know that you always suspected wasps were pellets of pure evil? Well they are, the parasitic wasp especially, since it actually inspired the film Alien. This is not good news, especially not for any caterpillar who happens to be in the vicinity of a pregnant female. To house her young, she “thrusts a hollow spike through the skin of a caterpillar and pumps in her eggs.” The caterpillar is now a surrogate womb several times over. Ewwww.

It gets worse. In the days following this gross invasion of privacy, the caterpillar grows to four times its size, with the wasps-in-waiting feeding on its juicy goodness being careful not to eat any of its vital organs. Eventually, when they are ready, they will chew their way out of the caterpillar with a specially developed set of gnashers. It gets even worse than this: The caterpillar, half dead from recently being eaten from the inside, has had its brain messed with too and, bafflingly, then uses its protective instincts to spin the pile of larvae a protective web and proceeds to act as their bodyguard, “watching over them until it starves to death.” EVIL, I tell you!

That was quite horrible. In fact, I watched most of this programme with my nose curled up in a faint expression of disgust. And never more so than when we saw the foetal kangaroo, which leaves the womb at four weeks old (the size of a jellybean) and crawls its way up to the mother’s pouch. Absolutely disgusting. Imagine a pulsating blood blister struggling through some fur and you’ll get the general idea. These are, of course the best bits in a documentary such as this. Like the bit where the shark foetus whose teeth develop first eats its brothers and sisters in the womb. Nasty, but interesting and something you won’t forget in a hurry.

But the same can’t be said for much of the rest of the documentary, which did tend to err on the tedious. I like a good nature programme as much as the next person but there were two problems here. Firstly, the narrator had a rather soporific voice, which is not great news when you are trying to stay interested in the sciencey bits. Secondly, the creatures weren’t cute, like newborns. Nor were they majestic, like adults. They were just pink. And squishy. And all looked a bit like those shrimps you get in a pick’n’mix. Seventy minutes of this doesn’t grip, no matter how much orchestral music or tense percussion you include.

Back to the penguins again. Are they doing anything interesting. Hmm, no not really. Oh hang on, here’s that footage of them all shuffling round in a big group that we’ve seen about a trillion times. They are bloody lovely though. “It might seem that those on the outside of this colony get a raw deal but incredibly the penguins take turns on the freezing edge, that way each bird gets a share of the heat in the centre.” Penguins: Loyal and great socialists too. Gotta love 'em.

Did anyone stick with it past this point? I confess, I got rather bored. The voice-over continued, a tad desperately I thought. “Over long distances a kangaroo can keep pace with a racehorse.” Booor---ing. “They can leap the length of a London bus.” Okay then, let’s see it.

But eventually nature had her way and finally, all the creatures were out. The shark “armed and armoured” and ready for life in the deep; the wasps totally transformed; the penguin chipping its way out of its thick egg; the Joey poking its head out of the pouch and promptly pulling it back in again. Well, really, can you blame it?

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