Penguins not only prove the existence of God, they prove the existence of a God with a sense of humor. When they pop out of the sea at the start of tonight's PBS documentary special, "Penguin Summer," they seem to be reenacting some ancient evolutionary rite, but nothing so impersonal as mere evolution, nor even Mother Nature, could have produced them. A sense of the absurd had to enter in there somewhere.
"Penguin Summer," a Survival Anglia production at 8 on channels 22 and 32, is neither as sentimental nor as sophisticated as the National Geographic Specials -- which set a splendid standard for TV nature programs -- but it is richly enjoyable, funny and fascinating.
Wildlife photographer Cindy Buxton caught the penguins in their annual mating rituals on the desolate and lacerated Falkland Islands, waaaaay down south. It's the strain known as rock-hoppers that gets the most attention; they jettison themselves out of the sea, trundle around on the beach for awhile (squabbling and tottering, like a convention of headwaiters), and then they hop up a 500-foot hill and mate.
After the newborn babies molt up a blizzard of discarded feathers, one and all leap off a handy cliff and return to the cruel sea. Though they are an argumentative lot (and though a penguin mother may absent-mindedly forget where she put her eggs), they still seem terribly polite and orderly; they complain to each other a great deal, yet appear never to question their assigned lot in life. To think it all goes on even when a camera isn't there. What dedication!
That great, great actor Jason Robards makes a very effective narrator for this story; producer-writer Colin Willock's script seems tailored to Robards' warmly wry voice and delivery, and Robards sounds totally immersed in what he is saying. He first refers to the penguins as "these fat little Fred Astaires"; later, as resembling "Scott Fitzgerald characters at a Palm Beach cocktail party." As parents, despite a forgetful mommy or two, they tend to be "remarkably conscientious," even to the point of sitting on and sheltering an offspring that has already grown bigger than its mother.
When sunbathing, they bring to mind New Yorker cartoons about rich old rakes. When swimming in a tidal pool, these portly tipplers become poetically graceful. An idyllic life, if you can take the monstrous climate and sudden hailstorms, and don't mind diving into waves that are crashing against a rocky shore. "Luckily for penguins, they don't taste good, and have little or no commercial value," Robards says, but that doesn't mean there are no threats. In addition to the occasional oil slick and the fishermen who snatch up the penguins' food supply, the dread sea lion happens by now and then and exterminates a penguin not for food but, apparently, purely out of meanness.
Willock's one serious mistake is to repeat one such kill in slow motion. It's very depressing.
Albatrosses earn their wings, pesky skuas swipe each other's eggs and a gaggle of reticent penguins works up the nerve to plunge into the ocean. There ought to be a special place in heaven for wildlife photographers whose gifts to us poor civilized slobs include such intoxicating exotica as "Penguin Summer."
(Channel 26 will not air "Penguin Summer" until Saturday, Jan. 9; instead, the station is tonight repeating, as part of its relentless fund-raising drive, a tired old three-hour musical wallow in the '50s. WETA's scheduling used to seem merely capricious; now it is beginning to appear willfully malicious.)