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Planet Earth

(BBC Earth; US: 27 Mar 2012)

It’s hard to think of a more compelling argument in favor od HDTV and Blu-ray technology than the 2005 BBC television series Planet Earth. This astonishing program traversed the planet from pole to pole in order to bring to light wonders of the natural world that most of us would remain otherwise entirely unaware of. Calling it “a nature show” is like calling Macbeth “a play where some bad stuff happens.” Planet Earth is likely to remain the definitive visual document of our planet’s natural bounty for some time to come.


It’s also the tentpole of The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection, a ten-disc cornucopia of some of the BBC’s finest documentaries. In addition to the six-disc Planet Earth, which includes hours of bonus material, the collection also includes the six-episode Wild China series on two discs, as well as Ganges and Galapagos, each of which feature three episodes on a disc apiece. The whole extravaganza clocks in at over 22 hours of material and will likely take a viewer weeks to explore fully.


Without a doubt, the star of this show is Planet Earth. Not only is it longer than the other programs combined, but it’s also the most exquisitely filmed. Narrated with appropriate gravitas by David Attenborough, the series makes brilliant use of high-altitude satellite imagery and time-lapse photography to achieve startling effects. Cameras which are (presumably) locked in one place over time show the seasons sweeping across grasslands and forests, while satellite images reveal the arid African savannah blossoming into rich green with the coming of the rains.


The series is broken into 11 episodes, each focusing on a particular environment: “Mountains”, “Deserts”, “Ice Worlds”, “Great Plains” and so forth. This clever structure allows the narrative to skip around geographically while remaining within the confines of that episode’s theme. Thus, every corner of the Earth is explored in nearly every episode.


Breathtaking images follow on one after the next, sometimes too quickly to absorb fully. Mountain peaks rise like daggers in South America; frogs soar through the air with unlikely grace; the polar caps hunker under their weeks-long night; a flock of migratory birds fill the screen, as the camera pulls back to reveal not dozens or hundreds but tens of thousands, until each individual is a mere speck. In the deepest reaches of the ocean, bizarre creatures straight out of a sci-fi movie glow with light, while in the Arctic north, fox pups play in the snow while a preoccupied mother looks on.


However, there’s more to nature than pretty things, and this documentary doesn’t shy away from the more grotesque elements of the natural world. If you’ve ever hankered to see thousands of cockroaches digging through heaps of bat guano, just cue up the episode “Caves” and settle in for a treat. Likewise, “Jungles” will introduce you to the lovely world of insect-consuming spores that plant themselves inside the bugs, then eat them out from the inside, erupting into grotesque pillars like something out of Alien. This is to say nothing of the central preoccupation of many of the animals on display here: eating. For carnivores, of course, this translates into killing things. To paraphrase Woody Allen, nature sometimes comes off as one gigantic restaurant, and more than one fluffy little cute thing meets its end as we watch.


There are several bonus episodes included on the Blu-ray, each of which is fully as long as a series episode, and all are worth watching. The snow leopard of Pakistan and India, a reclusive resident in the Karakorams and Himalayas, was first photographed for the “Mountains” episode, and the hunt for the elusive animal is the subject of a fascinating bonus episode as well. There is also a sobering feature called “Planet Earth: The Future,” which is rather bleak. Given recent reports in the news that by some estimates, 40 percent of our planet’s biodiversity has been lost in recent decades, the future is something we had best all give some serious thought to.


The other programs included here are interesting enough in their own right but, inevitably, suffer in comparison to Planet Earth. Of the three, Galapagos is probably the most visually stunning, as the islands themelves are so otherworldly—and varied, ranging from forested jungles to barren, smoking moonscapes. Tilda Swinson’s narration manages to convey a kind of no-nonsense wonder, and the story of how the islands shaped Darwin’s conception of evolutionary theory is compelling quite apart from the landscapes themselves.


Wild China offers a look at how Chinese interaction with the landscape has affected it, and its attendant wildlife, over the past centuries. Given the isolation of the region until relatively recent times, the show provides valuable glimpses of a China rarely seen in other media. In particular, the notion that significant portions of the countryside are relatively untouched was a new idea to this viewer. Ganges provides few such revelations: as a look at Indian wildlife through the lens of Indian culture and religion, it frankly comes off as something of a promotional video for the country. It’s easily the least surprising, and therefore least compelling, of the four programs.


That’s all but irrelevant, though. Viewers aren’t going to buy this collection for Ganges, they’re going to buy it for Planet Earth, and rightly so. The series is jaw-dropping. Given that Blu-ray technology is now available for only a few dollars more than a standard DVD player, it’s well worth the investment.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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