Most people have heard about the BBC’s excellent documentary series Planet Earth… which I must admit I haven’t seen yet, but I plan to watch in the future. However, first, I’ve decided to review the BBC’s companion documentary for the series – Earth: A Biography. Is the series a worthy companion, while still being able to stand on it’s own for those who haven’t watched Planet Earth, or does it leave something to desired?
The Premise: The documentary follows Iain Stewart, a geologist from the University of Plymouth in England, as he travels the world explaining various concepts on how Earth works – specifically relating to how we got to the earth we have now, from volcanoes and plate tectonics, to ice and the movement of glaciers, to wind and the atmosphere.
The Good: This documentary is gorgeous. When I got into watching movies in HD, there were two types of films that I felt could really “use” it, as opposed to being a nice bonus (I’ve later come to the conclusion that all genres of film could stand being in HD). The first was Science Fiction films, particularly stuff like Star Trek, Aliens, Blade Runner, and Star Wars. Stuff with production values, from special effects to set design. The second was documentaries, particularly nature documentaries – where they’re filming in places that it would be expensive for the viewer to go see and, frankly, it could be rather destructive to the environment at that location if we all went out to see them. Thus, this documentary is perfect for that sort of thing.
Additionally, Iain Stewart is very knowledgeable when it comes to his field, and of equal importance, he’s enthusiastic. He cares about what he’s talking about, he’s interested in what he’s talking about and he wants you, the viewer, to care, and to be interested as well. This definitely helps make the documentary enjoyable, because of this enthusiasm. If the host doesn’t care, then it’s hard for the audience to care.
The Bad: The quick-cut documentary style doesn’t work out as well here. With such attractive visuals, it doesn’t actually give us, the audience, an opportunity to enjoy what we’re watching. I’d rather they let us look at the pretty visuals while talking about their important concept, like land bridges or human migration across Africa, instead of showing a pretty visual, quick-cutting to something to illustrate the concept, and the quick cutting to another visual before the the first 2 have had a chance to sink in.
Also, the Blu-ray disks are very light on features. I would have preferred some “making of” content, or extended interviews with some of the experts they talked to on the show – the kind of stuff that would be online at PBS.com for an episode of Nova or Frontline, except on the disk. You’ve got the space – use it!
The Ugly: Iain spends about 5-10 minutes discussing the Rare Earth theory of the universe, which suggests that microbial life is common in the universe, but complex life like plants, animals, and humans is rare if not non-existent elsewhere in the universe. I understand why he’s doing it, to illustrate the dangers of humans messing up Earth enough that it can’t support us anymore, but I don’t agree with that theory, if only because I’m a bit of an optimist about whether the universe is capable of supporting life on other planets. As the catch-phrase from the X-Files goes, “I Want To Believe.” Consequently, that segment kind of rubbed me wrong, and considering that it was presented in front of some of the radio telescopes used by SETI, it felt very condescending, if not outright insulting.
The Verdict: Despite my problems under “The Ugly”, this is an enjoyable documentary to watch, though it feels very short – I was able to watch both disks in one evening. The lack of special features hurts it as well, in my opinion. I do recommend watching it, though it didn’t captivate me enough to want to buy a copy of it, though some other viewers after watching the show, may think otherwise.