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.

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