Armchair traveling has become somewhat of a cottage industry with the advent of cable and satellite services. Why deal with the stress of security lines, cancelled flights and lost luggage when it's just as easy to sit at home and soak up the sights and sounds of faraway places while also getting a history lesson. Such shows as Planet Earth and Discovery Atlas have provided often breathtaking images and above-average insight into the various cultures and geographical subjects they cover. This BBC Atlas of the Natural World, a nicely packaged 6 DVD set of various documentaries aired over the past several years, may travel the same territory (literally) as some other sets, but it is an amazing collection, full of "how did they ever film that?" moments, and with a wealth of natural history information that is sure to delight all lovers of the abundant variety of life found on our planet.
The set includes these documentaries:
Wild Africa is comprised of 2 DVDs, the first containing four outstanding episodes, including "Mountains," "Savannah," "Deserts" and "Coasts." Disc two features two episodes, "Jungle" and "Lakes and Rivers", as well as a bonus feature on "The Nile." All episodes feature one stunning image after another, including some really amazing aerial shots that are a joy to behold. This series features a fine orchestral/choral score by Christopher Gunning that augments the images immeasurably. According to Fergal Keane's lilting narration, Africa offers one of the most diverse collections of wildlife on earth, and several extremely strange looking creatures are on excellent display throughout the several hours of the series.
The Congo. Conjuring images of corny 40s and 50s B-movies, the (real) Congo is actually the second largest river system on the planet, and, like the Africa series, host to an amazingly diverse set of inhabitants. The BBC unit which got deep within this mysterious region was rewarded with some truly awe-inspiring imagery, from raging (almost overwhelmingly so) rivers to magnficent tree canopies that must been seen to be believed. This DVD features 3 episodes, "The River that Swallows All Rivers," "Spirits of the Forest," and "Footprints in the Forest." Again, an exceptionally evocative score by Ben Salisbury helps give the already lovely images added impact. A nice bonus documentary called "Spirits of the Forest: Madagascar" features some of the most engagingly peculiar wildlife outside of the Galapagos Islands.
The First Eden is the oldest documentary of the set (first broadcast in 1987) and is the only unenhanced 1.33:1 video in the set. Showing a marked decrease in image quality from the more recent documentaries, this landmark series still provides the always reliable and insightful guide of host and author Sir David Attenborough, who leads us on a journey through the topographical, plant and wildlife history of the Meditteranean region. This particular series is comprised of three episodes, "The Making of the Garden," "The Gods Enslaved," and "The Wastes of War" and unlike some of the others in this set, includes humankind and its structures as part of the vast panoply of natural history it reviews. Carl Davis' excellent score is not as pervasive as the others in this set, but is just as well-crafted. Actually further-flung than some of the more narrowly focused efforts in this set (everything from North Africa to the Middle East to further north into Europe gets at least a passing mention), The First Eden was justly celebrated in its day and proves to be a lasting contribution to this genre 20 years on.
The set concludes with the massive 2 DVD Europe: A Natural History, which manages to cover a mere 3 billion years in its four engrossing episodes, "Genesis," "Ice Ages," "Taming the Wild" and "The New Millenium." The unbelievably wide diversity of geography and species is well on display over the course of this series, and producers Patrick Morris and Klaus Feichenberger have selected an excellent array of imagery to paint the picture of far-off vestiges of history. As in The First Eden, man's (often bumbling) attempts to dominate his world are covered here, at least inasmuch as they affected the other organisms attempting to co-habitate with them. Two excellent bonus documentaries are included, "Scandinavia," a beautiful examination of a landscape most think of as relatively barren, but which is proven otherwise in fine form here; and "Fire and Ice," a similarly engaging exploration of Iceland, which, despite its name, is home to frequently erupting volcanoes and scalding hot geysers, all filmed in gripping detail.
Aside from The First Eden, all of these meticulously shot and edited features are 1.78:1 enhanced for widescreen televisions, and they are simply drop-dead gorgeous. Images are completely crisp and detailed.
All documentaries feature fine standard stereo soundtracks. Underscores are beautifully realized and all narration is clear. The First Eden, as with its image quality, suffers a bit by comparison in the audio department as well, but that is simply a function of its age.
In addition to the excellent bonus documentaries detailed above, all features have an "enhanced viewing mode," where supporting text pops up at various moments to give further information on the subject at hand. Potential DVD authoring glitch: On one of my two DVD players, even with "enhanced viewing mode" off, the very bottom of the text boxes would occasionally appear. It was mildly distracting but not a deal-breaker. The DVDs played fine on a second system and on my PC.
There is so much beautiful imagery, sound and information on these DVDs that it's really hard to sum up the treasures that await here. If you're a fan of any of the natural history programs currently glutting the cable/satellite market, you're going to love these DVDs. Note to parents: As with most natural history documentaries, there is some fairly graphic imagery of predators taking down their prey. Parents of younger children should probably preview each episode before deciding whether or not to let their kids watch.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet