TV Review: Planet Earth

I recently finished watching Planet Earth, the award-winning BBC nature documentary series narrated by David Attenborough. As its title implies, Planet Earth is an effort of considerable ambition: the filmmakers set out to produce a series that would provide a survey of our world’s natural grandeur and biodiversity. To a remarkable extent, I think they succeeded. Of course the full richness of Earth’s biosphere could not be exhaustively chronicled, but this series touches on many of the high points. It sweeps across every region of the planet, documenting our world’s remaining wildernesses and some of the more important species that live in them, in the process filming things that have never been caught on camera before. In its scientific breadth and scope, in the beauty it depicts, and in the reasons it gives us both to fear, and more importantly, to hope, Planet Earth compares favorably to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

The series consists of eleven episodes, each of which chronicles a different type of ecosystem flourishing on our planet. Over the course of the series, we’re taken from icy tundra and boreal forest to tropical jungle, from the rich shallow seas to the blackness of the ocean abyss, from soaring mountains to desolate deserts to the eerie dark worlds of the cave systems beneath the planet’s surface. Each episode is fifty minutes, plus a ten-minute ending segment called “Planet Earth Diaries” that shows how some of the more difficult-to-obtain shots were filmed – a nice touch that gives one appreciation for the truly heroic dedication of the photographers who traveled to some of the most remote, wild areas of the planet, braving all manner of harsh and grueling conditions, and worked in some cases for weeks on end just to catch a few moments of action on film. Three additional episodes, collectively titled Planet Earth: The Future, make the case for conservation using footage from the series and interviews with prominent advocates for the environment.

But the focus of the show, as I said, is on the breathtaking natural beauty of our planet and the wonderful, intricate tree of life that flourishes upon it. I couldn’t do justice to all the high points in this one post, but here are a few that particularly stood out to me:

  • a snow leopard, one of our planet’s rarest and most elusive predators, hunting twisted-horned markhor antelope in the Himalayas of eastern Pakistan – the first close-up images of snow leopards in the wild ever filmed;
  • the vast precipice of Venezuela’s Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall – a sheer drop of nearly a kilometer, so high that the falling water is blown into mist before it reaches the bottom;
  • Nile crocodiles exploding out of the water to grab migrating wildebeest crossing their river – the terrifying tenacity of the bull crocodiles is shown when one of them, after grabbing a wildebeest’s leg in its jaws, wrestles with its unlucky prey for over an hour before finally dragging the wildebeest into the water and drowning it;
  • parachute divers leaping into the sunlit shaft of Mexico’s Cave of Swallows, a dizzying sheer drop deeper than the Empire State Building is tall;
  • a male polar bear, starving and exhausted after a long swim in the open water of the melting Arctic, desperately attacking a herd of bull walruses;
  • a spectacular sequence in which an entire pride of African lions hunts and kills an elephant;
  • the elaborate courtship displays of New Guinean birds of paradise;
  • a band of chimpanzees waging war on a rival tribe, slipping silently into their adversaries’ territory before erupting in a furious charge of intimidating shrieks and hoots; the savage hand-to-hand fighting ends with the losers being torn apart and, in some cases, devoured by the winners;
  • banded sea kraits – aquatic snakes – swimming as smoothly as eels to hunt fish among the coral reefs of the Pacific;
  • Borneo’s Deer Cave, where a flock of three million bats has created a guano mound the size of a large building, covered with swarming, voracious cockroaches;
  • in the Azores, a school of hundreds of dolphins herding scad mackerel, working in unison to encircle their prey and drive them closer to the surface, where diving cory shearwaters soar down to share in the hunt;
  • the lush communities of strange life that thrive around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, powered by the superheated plumes of mineral-rich water erupting from fissures in the crust, like oases in the abyssal dark. When these vents stop erupting, a whole community can collapse from vibrant life into a dead, frozen forest of tube-worm skeletons – a devastation treated by the film with all the gravity of an empire’s fall;
  • a vast flock of migrating Baikal teal – hundreds of thousands of birds, all flying in unison – and the camera pulls back, and back, and still further back, until each individual bird is just a tiny speck, and still the whole flock cannot fit on the screen at once;
  • and last but not least, time-lapse shots of the seasons changing, even time-lapse shots from space that show rivers flood, forests turn green, snow and glaciers advance – I don’t know how these were taken or whether they were special effects.

The one caveat I would offer is that Planet Earth is a nature documentary, which means most of the sequences are of animals doing what animals normally do in the wild. If you’re the kind of person who finds that boring, you’ll probably be bored by this as well. There are plenty of hair-raising moments, but the purpose of the show is not to keep viewers constantly on the edge of their seat. Personally, I found it a spectacular glimpse of some of the Earth’s last remaining places of wild beauty. If that description appeals to you, then I can safely say that you’ll love Planet Earth, and I would definitely recommend it.

Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • James B

    I can also recommend this, along with the “Life of…” series. Great stuff.

  • dkim

    I really enjoyed watching this series with my 4 year old son and would recommend watching it with the whole family. Similar caveat however, that as it is animals doing what animals do, there may be some scenes that pose problems for younger kids. My son didn’t have a problem but others may. Fortunately those scenes shouldn’t be enough to keep you from watching the bulk of the episodes.

  • Rhapsody

    I watched that on the BBC when it was first aired, and I found it to be fantastic. Really thought I’d seen everything I was ever going to from nature documentaries, but it surprised me. I can’t really imagine it being narrated by Sigourney Weaver though (David Attenborough is just perfect for this sort of stuff).

    A nice bonus is that it was all filmed in high definition too, so it’ll make a nice legacy for years to come.

  • mike

    PE is very good, but I recommend getting the British version, narrated by Attenborough. Nothing against Sigourney Weaver, but the scripts are slightly different. Maybe it is just me, but the US version struck me as very self-congratulatory — at least once every segment, they are telling you how good and ground-breaking they are at documentary film making. I don’t mind that stuff in the “making of” segments, but during the documentary proper I would rather let nature speak for itself.

  • Joffan

    Beautiful, recommended, and a chance to feel a frisson at least of immanence.

  • Adam

    Loved it!! Nice post. I would also recommend watching the sections at the end of each DVD that explains how they got all the camera Shots!!

  • Chris Swanson

    Just out of curiousity, and slightly off-topic, I wonder how you, Ebonmuse, feel about Global Warming Theory? I mention it cause of the “melting Artcic” line up there.

    Me, I tend to vacilate back and forth between accepting it and questioning it, though ultimately to me it doesn’t matter, since I think eliminating pollution for its own sake is a good enough idea. I don’t need Dire Threats of Impending Doom to make me want to do that.

    Sorry for the slightly off-topic question.

  • Ebonmuse

    What is there to question? Both the poles are melting. A wide variety of evidence from different fields of inquiry converges on the conclusion that this and other climactic changes currently taking place around the planet are caused by human burning of fossil fuels, which is increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and causing a corresponding increase in the greenhouse effect.

  • Jeff T.

    Global warming may not be such a bad thing if the authors of “The Life and Death of Planet Earth” are correct. Being swallowed by ice seems more of a problem to me than getting in a few tans late in the fall. Enjoy this pale blue dot while it lasts, it will be white before we know it.

  • John Nernoff

    There is a lurking message of doom in any nature show, brilliant as a production may be. Humans seem to be inexorably and selfishly reproducing themselves and feverishly consuming any resource, imposing a frightening imbalance and destruction of what nature took millions of years to create. Will it be possible to do a similar film mere decades from now? I am afraid not.

  • Valhar2000

    I just finished watching the episode about caves yesterday, and it was amazing. I found the cave in the US, with those crystals that were almost sahped like coral, and had lithovore bacteria on them, even more impressive than the hundred meter high mound of bat droppings you mentioned.

    This series of documentaries is awesome!

  • mikespeir

    Happy Atheists Day everybody!

  • Ebonmuse

    Will it be possible to do a similar film mere decades from now? I am afraid not.

    The producers of the film did mention at several points that vast animal migrations and other spectacles which they filmed for similar documentaries just a few decades ago can no longer be found today. There are still wild places on Earth, but the number that have not felt the effects of human depredation is growing increasingly small…

  • Susan B.

    The diversity of life shown in this series is incredible. I’ve watched it many times over and will do so again. One of the highlights for me is the scene of an ant (and later a grasshopper and many other insects) getting taken over by a parasitic fungus as its family members desperately move it as far away from the colony as possible. Even the morbid scenes like this are beautiful, and an important part of the natural processes that keep the ecosystems alive.

    One thing I love about the series is that by concentrating on ecosystems, rather than individual species or families, they can talk about how all these species have evolved in parallel with one another. I also appreciate that they discuss the non-living aspects of the ecosystems, such as the crystal structures in the caves.

  • Jim S.

    I was fortunate enough to watch the entire series when it was presented on HD Theater (Discovery Channel’s hi def version). We had just gotten our hi def lcd big screen and did not appreciate what HD could be until the opening scenes of Planet Earth. The entire series just blew our socks off. Mere written superlatives cannot convey the visual grandeur portrayed in this series.

    Do Not Miss It!

  • Will Davies

    David Attenborough is God. What is this Weaver heresy I hear?

    In all seriousness, I think Attenborough might be the most widely respected man in Britain. Interestingly, he’s an atheist.

    I think he’s planning a series on Darwin, the Beagle and evolution next – can’t wait! I have Planet Earth on DVD, and it’s great; who needs to trek to church of a Sunday to have a spiritual experience when you’ve got the whole planet waiting on your shelf?

    For Chris Swanson and Jeff T, I can only direct you to the Royal Society’s excellent site on climate change, which can be found here:
    (sorry for the shodding linking, I don’t know to hyperlink here!)

  • Kevin Morgan

    I concur. It was a fantastic undertaking. I was especially impressed by the lengths the film crews went through to get their shots.