Discussing the BBC series Planet Earth without resorting to some form of hyperbole is a fairly impossible task. To do anything less would seem to diminish somehow the true scope of its overwhelming achievement. But to oversell it also seems to be a disservice as this is at heart another nature documentary, albeit one of singular beauty. The best description necessitates the borrowing of a phrase from Douglas Adams. Planet Earth could be, when all is said and done, nothing less than the last chance to see the wonders of the natural world (animal, vegetable, and mineral) before they are irrevocably changed or gone.
Planet Earth is 11 episodes of eye-popping beauty specifically engineered for high-definition sets, the sort of thing that one watches to justify buying that high-end in-home theater system. Each episode takes a God's eye approach (the voice of God being, of course, David Attenborough) toward its particular corner of the earth, whether it's deserts, mountains, or the deepest and darkest crevices of the oceans. Instead of the expected scientist-as-guide approach (Attenborough creeping through the jungle in a safari jacket, pointing out intriguing fauna), Planet Earth has a more subdued tone, letting nature work its magic instead of haranguing the viewer into obeisance. When Attenborough does speak, it is with a calmly intelligent voice that identifies the viewers as being just one more species on the pale blue dot. In the "Mountains" episode, amidst the soaring peaks, the narration reminds humans of their insignificance: "We can be only visitors here."
In fact, it's reminders like that which help keep Planet Earth from being a particularly well-photographed slice of nature porn, a genre it can't help but resemble at times. There are only so many unbelievable vistas of desert (the sand dunes' knife-like edges so precise they appear computer-generated) or sky-filling flocks of migratory birds or bats that one can withstand before slipping into a sort of passive, slack-jawed astonishment. At times, the show is a near-constant flow of epic imagery (the show must have employed its own private helicopter fleet to accomplish it all).But it also remembers to focus on the small and seemingly insignificant, like the strangely comic bird of paradise in New Guinea, which attracts mates by performing a spastic dance and displaying a giant smiley-face mask of feathers.
It wouldn't be a nature show, of course, without predators, and Planet Earth doesn't disappoint in that respect, either. The soundtrack's orchestral swells change to a more martial pounding of drums as a pride of lions take down an elephant or the rare and jackal-like African hunting dogs go after impala with the fluid precision of a crack Special Forces unit. While there are some expected stars here, such as the frankly astounding slow-motion footage of great white sharks hunting seals, others are less so, like the raiding party of Ugandan chimpanzees who assault a neighboring community and even eat one of their victims.
Tied in with all the sweeping landscapes and heart-pounding chases is a taut thread of a reminder about the fragility of everything on display. Too many nature shows exist in a kind of vacuum, where the animals surveyed are rendered as things unto themselves living in a static environment. But this show presents the planet as much more of a fluid place, where animals are almost always on the move, traversing from one isolated pod of green, fresh water, and plenty to the next, with deserts of sand, snow, and nutrient-poor saltwater in between. In Planet Earth, the world is shown as being much as it always has been, with humans an essentially nonexistent creature, making only the occasional cameos as mountain climbers or pilots of deep-sea vessels needed to explore the oceans. When one watches the agonizing struggle of a starving polar bear struggling from one melting ice floe to the next, later frantically and futilely attacking a herd of massive walruses, the impact of mankind on these animals speaks for itself.
On the DVD release of Planet Earth -- which should be considered one of those essential purchases, particularly as part of the gargantuan 17-disc Natural History Collection, also including the Attenborough-hosted The Blue Planet, The Life of Mammals, and The Life of Birds -- the environmental issue is addressed forthrightly on a three-episode coda titled "The Future." After letting viewers wallow in the majesty of their planet for hours and hours, this disc then provides the reality-check of wilderness as "immense, mysterious, and disappearing." Instead of a standalone series, the "Future" episodes actually use the Planet Earth crew's experiences as its linking point, discussing at length how the shooting of the series gave its makers a view to exactly how damaged the planet was as they traveled around it and were told by scientist after scientist how one species after another was disappearing or "crashing."
While its ending notes may be those of possible catastrophe, Planet Earth can't be anything but hopeful, as really less a nature show than a series of snapshots of reasons to live.
News on the march.