The most surprising reference to time in the History Channel's literally by the numbers documentary How the Earth Was Made is not the multi-billion year figure bandied about with regard to our planet's probable age. It's actually on the opposite end of that immense timeline that I found my mind being boggled--the fact is, it's only been in the last 200 or so years that actual scientific research has been done attempting to ferret out how exactly Earth came to be. What that says to me is that the final chapter on all of this has probably not yet been written, though the facts unearthed (no pun intended) so far are often fascinating and point out a long, long history here where, were we to have experienced it ourselves, would have left us feeling very much like strangers in a strange land.
The History Channel obviously knows how to put together these sweeping overviews, and How the Earth Was Made is no exception. We get a staggering array of both stock footage, newly shot material, animation and, of course, talking heads (some of them actually out walking around on various geographical outcroppings), all helping to give the viewer at least the basics in geology and various theories and conclusions people have drawn over the past two centuries. This is played out against the "certainty" that religious fundamentalists have claimed that, due to Biblical genealogies (i.e., counting the years of each generation in one of Scripture's many "begat" segments), our planet is just a few thousand years old. (It's interesting to contrast these "genesis" theorists--all of whom were, of course, absolutely sure their conclusions, since Biblically supported, were correct, with their similar counterparts on the "end time" spectrum. These apocalyptic prophets have been predicting dire consequences for our planet and humankind for millennia, with a seemingly unending series of dates for that final big bang given, the latest of which is the Mayan "doomsday" of December 21, 2012).
This 90 minute or so documentary covers huge epochs of time (literally billions of years in each segment), with a little timeline glyph opening what must have been each post-commercial break, showing us exactly where in the incomprehensibly huge history of the planet's formation we currently are. We of course get broad generalist portraits of each individual age the planet went through, from its formative stages, when meteorites "banded together" to start building a planet (something that frankly is never completely explained), moving on to the molten firestorm that lasted for millennia, which was then replaced by a "waterworld" of sorts, and on and on, one improbable event after another somehow crafting a world that could support the unbelievable variety of life we experience currently.
What this documentary has going for it is an amazing panoply of factoids, some of which fly by at the speed of sound (and/or Edward Herrmann's imposing voiceover), augmented by interesting, if at times poorly rendered and/or transferred, visuals. What keeps this from being one of History Channel's often A+ efforts is simply the breadth of its subject, and the relative paltriness of the presentation here. Something spanning billions of years can't be successfully summed up in an hour and a half. Therefore there's a surprising lack of real in depth questioning about some of the fundamental issues that are lying just beneath the surface of this exposť--yes, this is a scientific inquiry, hoping to shed light on how exactly our little "blue green" rock ended up the way it is, but after a while, one has to start wondering "why," and that is a question this documentary resolutely refuses to even glance at.
Nonetheless, this is an interesting, broadly drawn overview that should certainly provide an introduction to the subject for interested adults and, especially, kids. I often think that some of these History Channel documentaries are nothing more (or less) than a solid way to get my kids to start questioning aspects of various subjects, and then do something unimaginable (like read!) to find out more. How the Earth Was Made stands as a perfect example of that sort of starting point.
You longtime readers of my reviews know I regularly take History Channel to task on their stupidly unenhanced SD-DVD releases. So I was looking forward to my first History BD. Well, guess what? It's basically one of the shoddiest transfers I've seen recently. The opening few moments (some of which admittedly obviously came from stock footage) are a laundry list of transfer issues and artifacts, from line shimmer to aliasing to flicker to just plain awful (that last a technical term). At times this BD sports quite beautiful sharpness and excellent color and detail, like in some lovely shots of rivers rushing over rocks. Other times, in fact a lot of the time, things are horribly soft and nowhere near what you would expect a state of the art VC-1 encode to provide. I'm really disappointed in the image quality of this BD.
The uncompressed PCM 2.0 mix is marginally better, but I had to wonder why we didn't get a surround mix when there's so much to work with here--meteors crashing left and right, huge water sounds, not to mention the various beasts, from underwater creatures to everyone's favorite, the dinosaurs, romping through the proceedings, a stereo mix, while perfectly acceptable, seems a little underwhelming. What's here, though, is offered with excellent fidelity and reasonable dynamic range. Herrmann's narration is clear and easily heard. English subtitles are available.
Two pretty standard extras are offered, a supplemental documentary called "Inside the Volcano," which offers an up close and personal view of lots of magma and lava, and some deleted/additional scenes from How the Earth Was Made itself.
Like a lot of History Channel documentaries, this will serve best as a concise introduction (improbably concise, actually, since it has to cover such impossibly huge spans of time in so short a running length). You'll get a reasonable amount of background and information on what scholars currently think was the history and formation of our planet, as well as its major lifeforms. Just don't expect anything overly thought-provoking or, dare I say, philosophical in this enterprise. Hampered by a very poor image quality, the best I can recommend on this title is to Rent It.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet