TV & RadioTV review

BBC’s deceitful robot animals are an ethical nightmare and have made me suspicious of the humans in my life

These lying machines hoodwink and toy with the affections of blameless sea beasts with David Tennant’s tacit approval

In Spy in the Ocean (Sunday, BBC1) David Tennant, a lapsed Doctor Who, lives under the sea where he commands an army of robotic surveillance animals. Look, it’s possible he’s actually narrating this goofily majestic nature programme from a comfy studio on land, but the gist of it is that human employees have been replaced by robotic animals with cameras for eyes (RTÉ is looking into this) in order to infiltrate the lives of sea creatures. It could also have been called We Lied to Fish.

At the outset of this week’s episode of We Lied to Fish we meet a singing humpback whale who is floating along with his best friend, a dolphin (You: “Patrick, both of these are mammals not fish”. Me: “Quiet, nerd”). I don’t speak “whale”, but I imagine what he’s singing can be translated as: “I am so happy swimming along in the sea, with my li’l dolphin pal, who is my best friend, a great listener and the only person I can confide in. I tell him all my secrets and all my hopes and dreams. It would destroy me to find that he was actually some sort of spy robot recording my most intimate moments and broadcasting them for all to see on television. However, I do not suspect this, for I was raised with secure family attachments and a rounded sense of self.”

We get a close-up of his dolphin chum at this point and see his goggling camera eyes and his goofy uncanny valley smile. He seems to whirr and click. If he was a human, he would resemble Mr Tayto or possibly one of the Muppets from the film Labyrinth. In fairness, I’ve had friends who look like this. But at this point, we also learn from Tennant’s voiceover that the dolphin’s actual name is “Spydolphin” which probably should have been a clue to the singing whale (“But how could you spy on me Spydolphin?”). That said, I too find Spydolphin very likeable and would be taken in by his charming guff.

We also meet a sea-beast literally called a “sarcastic fringehead”, which is brilliant because he looks like he’s standing outside a rural disco insincerely complimenting your jacket

One day after years of friendship during which the whale and the dolphin exchanged friendship bracelets (I’m possibly projecting here) the singing humpback whale goes to romance a lady humpback whale. Spydolphin tags along on this date. I’ve a friend who used to do this. The lady whale is a single parent just trying to make it in the big city (the sea) and she has many suitors, none of whom, I note, are accompanied by a li’l dolphin buddy. Meanwhile in the sky above, a goggly-eyed robotic Spybird also films the whale’s love quest surreptitiously and the whale is none the wiser (to watch the BBC player he’d need to use a VPN).


Next, we find ourselves upon a beach where elephant seals are engaging in lovemaking and also violence, watched closely by penguins (notorious voyeurs) as well as a camera robot disguised as a big rock. This robot’s name is, of course, “Spyrock”. Unlike Spydolphin, who is a smooth Bond-like operator with lovely eyes, there’s a touch of the undercover Garda about Spyrock as he trundles about on little R2D2 wheels. He’s not very convincing. “Hello, dudes, anyone know where I might purchase some ‘reefers’?” he says (probably).

“Get lost, narc,” say the elephant seals (though it sounds like roaring).

“I ain’t no policeman, geezer. I am a literal rolling stone with a hankering for hot illegal drugs.”

We’re here to watch a baby elephant seal in danger of being crushed by the elephant seal king who is angered by another elephant seal putting the moves on his girlfriend. Nature is just horrible and needs to be stopped. There’s a lot of jeopardy here and I certainly had my heart in my mouth as these majestic four-tonne (!) beasts flung themselves about with little care paid to the very crushable-looking baby seal hanging out nearby (spoiler alert: the baby seal isn’t harmed!).

It’s certainly made me look at the humans in my life with more suspicion. Who among them could be a robot voyeur?

It’s unclear why Spyrock is involved. I feel like the nimble camera movements tracking the little seal’s plight are not produced by this trundling dullard, but maybe when he’s off-camera himself he leaps into graceful and acrobatic action. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’ve taken against Spyrock so much. I think he reminds me of someone from school. It’s also just occurred to me that as well as robots disguised as animals there must also be human camera folk in this chain of deceit.

All of this is accompanied by the usual nature programme soundtrack of whimsical piccolos, galumphing tubas and sweeping strings. Nature documentarians like classical music leitmotifs, probably because of Peter and the Wolf. But there are times during the scenes of elephant seal lovemaking that I feel like some slap bass and a slide whistle could have been considered.

Later we meet a one-eyed sea lion (it would be cool if he was given an eye patch in future series) competing with two sharks to catch “one of the most challenging fish of all ... tuna!” The sea lion catches the tuna. Then it’s taken from him by the sharks. Then he retrieves it. The tuna himself doesn’t know what’s happening. He is, I suspect, a tuna melt. Throughout the whole escapade the sea lion must be perplexed by a nearby Spysealion who just watches without intervening.

We also meet a sea-beast with a gaping mouth of pointy teeth. He’s literally called a “sarcastic fringehead”, which is brilliant because he looks like he’s standing outside a rural disco insincerely complimenting your jacket. The show creators in their wisdom have come up with a robotic version of the same species in order to mess with him. The real sarcastic fringehead and the robot variety face up to one another on the former’s doorstep, where he lives with his children: eggs. The two beasts, organic and mechanical, open up their flappy maws at each other. Then they end up involved in what looks like a long, passionate kiss. I can’t help feeling that it’s the best kiss of the sarcastic fringehead’s life and that he will think of it often and for the rest of his days (Yes, David Tennant maintains that this is aggressive signalling, not a kiss, but I know what I saw and I too will think of it often).

There are more deceitful robots and blameless sea beasts over the course of this programme and while it’s all very educational and beautiful and disgusting, it’s also quite worrying. I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to do this sort of thing soon with human robots. It’s certainly made me look at the humans in my life with more suspicion. Who among them could be a robot voyeur? Look at them there whirring and clicking and pointing their roundy eyes at me. I don’t trust them. Except, of course, for my best friend Spyhuman. He’d never betray me.