The Planet Earth series set a new standard for the documentary art, communicating the excitement of scientific discovery while showing us the wonders of the natural world with spectacular state-of-the-art cinematography. But the BBC's film crews, writers, producers and vocal performers have continued to raise the standard ever since, and now the 8-hour Human Planet series does it again. Only this time the focus is on the most amazing species of them all.
As in Planet Earth, the organizing principle here is type of habitat (oceans, deserts, arctic, jungles, mountains, grasslands, rivers, cities), with each episode made up of several segments, each focussing on specific people doing amazing things for a living, mostly in exotic locations. The gripping and suspenseful qualities of each story are enhanced by John Hurt's excellent voice-over narrative, interwoven with superb location sound and effectively integrated music. Sometimes the drama is almost painfully intense, especially when the work we are seeing is highly dangerous -- for instance, the divers who have to spend hours maneuvering their nets deep underwater, sustained only by a barely-adequate boat with a diesel compressor pumping air to them through plastic tubes like garden hoses. The script does not neglect to tell you why these people are forced (or sometimes choose) to undergo these dangers, or how the film crew got these amazing shots: the 10-minute "Behind the Lens" segments at the end of each episode are essential to the whole experience because they illuminate the relationships between the filmmakers and their subjects. The contrast between traditional low-tech but high-performance skills and the sophisticated technology being used to document them becomes a vital part of the story. So does the circumstance that many of these traditional skills -- like those of three African tribesmen who face down a whole pride of lions to steal part of their kill -- are on the verge of disappearing.
Despite the tremendous range and variety of locations covered in this series, it doesn't come across as miscellaneous (or even as "humanity's greatest hits"), but rather as an exploration of the human relationship with the natural world. As we all know, that complex relationship is extremely and increasingly troubled these days, and this series makes that very clear, and does it without preaching or scolding -- it shows you in the most intimate way what's happening to people, and leaves it to your conscience to consider the implications. This pattern culminates in the final episode, which (like the series as a whole) celebrates the breadth and depth of human ingenuity and determination without neglecting the challenges we face on a global scale. It shows graphically that the stresses inflicted on the biosphere by our consumptive habits have their impact on ordinary people all over the planet -- but also that some of us are finding ways to shift our habits toward restoring and sustaining the health of our deep connection with nature. It's fitting therefore that after all the far-flung exploits featured in this series, the last word goes to the renaissance of beekeeping in New York City.
BBC Earth hasn't disappointed me yet, but this Blu-ray pushes the envelope even further. Even the packaging is perfect. Thanks also to Amazon's Earth Day sale -- long may that tradition continue as well!