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The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © BBC Getty

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now

Published: 04th December, 2020 at 08:00
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Calling all fans of nature, David Attenborough and Brian Cox.

Searching for the best documentaries on BBC iPlayer? A fan of cosmology, intriguing animals and Sir David Attenborough? Then do we have some recommendations just for you.


Covering one-off specials, natural history shows and mind-boggling science films, we delved into the deep depths of the BBC streaming service to uncover some hidden gems alongside the prime-time titles.

Whether you’re looking to escape across the Universe, marvel at future tech, or ogle at some exceptionally cute animals, your perfect next binge watch is just below.

From Ice to Fire: The Incredible Science of Temperature

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © BBC

After only a few minutes, it’s impossible not to warm to this short series about temperature and the science at its extremes.

We dare you not to be amazed as host Dr Helen Czerski shows how the normal laws of physics appear to break down close to absolute zero, a realm in which the quantum computers of tomorrow will flourish. And then there’s the superhot, with Czerski exploring how plasmas heated to 100 million degrees could make nuclear fusion power a reality.

In short: it’s all degrees of interesting.

Blue Planet II

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © BBC

As its name suggests, Blue Planet II (sequel to 2001’s The Blue Planet, also narrated by David Attenborough) is deep dive into the globe’s most remarkable underwater environments – and the colourful characters who inhabit them.

But it’s not all footage of ninja octopuses disguising themselves as molluscs, or penguins sneaking around sleeping seals (although that’s worth the watch alone): Blue Planet II is most notable for its heart-breaking environmental message.

In particular, one sequence documenting a mother whale grieving the loss of her calf from chemical poisoning is especially poignant. In fact, when first airing in 2017, this one moment was credited with illuminating the British public to the problem of plastic pollution. Overall, vital and eye-opening viewing.

Eight Days: to the Moon and Back

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © Getty

Featuring rare footage, this immersive docu-drama tells the complete story of the Apollo 11 mission that saw Neil Armstrong become the first man on the moon.

From lift-off to re-entry, the film follows every twist and turn of the journey, showing how the historical flight was plagued with problems. In particular, the film explains in-depth how the iconic lunar landing itself was almost aborted, the astronauts touching down with only seconds of fuel to spare.

Even for those familiar with the mission, it’s still a watch we recommend. The dramatic reconstructions throughout breathe new life into the story, offering a clean listen to transmissions between the astronauts and Mission Control – sans the headache-inducing static.

The Planets

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © Getty

Just in case you need a reminder: our Solar System is massive. Absolutely massive. And in just one five-part series, Professor Brian Cox seeks to explain it all: from why Saturn has rings, to how Mars used to be a beautiful water world, and why the Sun will eventually engulf the Earth.

Yet, despite packing in so much information, The Planets never feels rushed or incomprehensible. Cox clearly and enthusiastically explains each point with helpful visual cues and never speaks down to the audience. All in all, it’s perfect viewing for cosmology newcomers.

Planet Earth II

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © Getty

Arguably the most beautifully shot nature documentary of all time, this landmark series (sequel to the 2006 show) offers an unprecedented insight into how Earth’s most intriguing animals survive. From a nail-shredding iguana escape from snake territory, to a lion versus giraffe showdown in the Namib desert of Southern Africa, this series is packed with standout sequences.

Just in case that hasn’t hooked you in, Planet Earth II’s narrator will: grandfather of nature TV, Sir David Attenborough (and his soothing tones) guides you through six binge-worthy episodes. Combine that with a booming soundtrack from Hans Zimmer and you have yourself a show as powerful as it is fascinating.

Nature’s Weirdest Events

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © Getty

Nature is weird. Seriously seriously weird. Just ask Chris Packham, the presenter who explored Earth’s weirdest natural phenomena for this BBC series.

With help of eyewitnesses, Packham investigates such oddities as the French bees who produce multi-coloured honey, a bizarre blood-red rainfall in Spain and even exploding toads in Germany.

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Alongside some truly befuddling footage, the show also treats viewers to the strange (and often complex) science behind each case. But don’t worry if all the explanations don’t make complete sense: the real joy is watching nature's oddest moments play out on camera. Because who doesn’t want to see a caterpillar cocoon an entire car?

Locked In

The best documentaries on BBC iPlayer to watch right now © BBC

We should warn you now: this is not an easy documentary to watch. Locked In follows director Xavier Alford and his story of life with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare illness that can leave the body completely paralysed, with the brain unaffected. As he describes it, it’s like becoming “locked in your own body”.

Throughout the film, Alford tries to make sense of the illness, speaking to medical experts about what might cause ­– and cure – his condition. However, despite leaps in science, he finds few answers.

But, somehow, Alford explores the topic with unlikely positivity, accepting his own fate – and his need to live life to the fullest in the meantime.

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Thomas Ling
Thomas LingStaff Writer, BBC Science Focus

Thomas is a Staff Writer at BBC Science Focus and looks after all things Q&A. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards.


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