The Blue Planet: Seas of Life, an eight-part BBC documentary on the world's oceans, has been given a fabulous transfer over to the DVD format, resulting in a documentary set that's not to be missed under any circumstances. The series is sold as four individual DVDs, each with two 48-minute episodes; in this review, I'm treating them as a set, because if you like one of them, you will absolutely want to have them all.
Each of the nature documentary's eight episodes treats a different aspect of the ocean, amply demonstrating how much there is of interest in the water that makes up 70% of the Earth's surface. While the discs are not numbered, it makes sense to watch them in order, starting with "Ocean World," an introduction to the complexities of the ocean and how the sun and moon shape the tides that, in turn, shape ocean life. "Frozen Seas," also on disc 1, takes a look into the challenging habitats of the Arctic and Antarctic seas. On disc 2, "Open Ocean" takes viewers to the "desert" of the ocean: where predators and prey cruise in the depths, hundreds of miles from the nearest land, while "The Deep" explores life on the ocean floor. Disc 3 takes us to "Seasonal Seas," showing that life in the ocean is as ever-changing as life on land, and "Coral Seas," a rich "rainforest of the sea" where an incredible diversity of sea life congregates. Disc 4 presents "Tidal Seas," where the effect of tides on ocean and seashore life is examined, and "Coasts," exploring the life-rich habitat that lies in the border between ocean and land.
One of the strong points of the series is its objective eye on the material. The filmmakers have chosen subject matter that will be interesting to viewers, and have crafted each episode in such a way that the material is compelling on its own merits. There's no anthropomorphism of the creatures shown on the film, and no sentimentality: in nature, life can be brutally hard, and death is much closer to life than most humans are comfortable with acknowledging. Perhaps the best example of Blue Planet's excellent handling of the material in this respect is in "Coasts." As the episode develops, we identify with the creatures who are struggling to survive, to gather food and avoid predators. But each creature is part of the overall food chain, from baby turtles to seabirds to sea lions to killer whales; as the episode moves on, we progressively have our sympathies transferred to creatures higher up on the food chain. The implied lesson? That in the ecological balance, there is no "good" or "bad," no "villains" and "heroes"; just a complex system of creatures living in a web of relationships in which no energy is wasted.
Is it perfect? Admittedly not quite, as there are a few minor details that I think could have been handled slightly better. One of these is the overall series continuity; the episodes can really be watched in any order, so there's no building on the information that's provided. There are also a few small instances of overlap in the material. The other quibble I have is the use of sound effects, particularly in underwater scenes: for many instances of things that would really have been completely silent, the soundtrack adds in "effects" like clicking or other small noises. It's misleading, particularly since the soundtrack does include many genuine sound effects, like dolphin sonar or whales clearing their blowholes.
Perhaps the best way to describe Blue Planet: Seas of Life is as a documentary for intelligent adults. That's not to say that younger viewers won't enjoy or appreciate it, as they most certainly can. It simply means that Blue Planet presents the material for the pure joy of being informed about a vast, fascinating part of the world we live in. There's no scramble to push in specific factoids; instead, each episode presents broader concepts that it then goes on to develop and illustrate. Blue Planet: Seas of Life leaves viewers wanting more, in the very best of ways: by presenting its material in a captivating and illuminating way, the program itself is an invitation to viewers to learn more about the ocean world that the filmmakers spent years exploring and discovering.
I was extremely pleased to discover that Blue Planet: Seas of Life is presented in anamorphically-enhanced widescreen at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, even though the DVD cases don't say so. British television has made a strong and welcome shift toward widescreen, and so BBC documentaries have taken advantage of the format, with features such as Walking with Dinosaurs and now Blue Planet being presented on DVD in their original, widescreen aspect ratios. Blue Planet: Seas of Life certainly makes excellent use of the widescreen image, with sweeping vistas and beautifully-composed shots that make the program captivating to watch simply on a visual standpoint, in addition to the interest of the material.
The image quality is extremely high; the picture is clean and free of any noise or flaws in the print, and colors are rich and vivid. There is some variation in image quality because of the nature of the shots themselves; for instance, the sequence of sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs in "Ocean World" appears grainy, but the incredible thing is that it's on film at all, considering that these turtles were coming ashore in the dead of night, and the camera crew couldn't use strong lighting equipment for fear of disturbing the very creatures they were trying to capture on film. The only aspect of the image that I'd fault is that there's a touch of edge enhancement apparent in some scenes.
Taking into account the extremely challenging filming conditions, including low visibility, shy creatures, total darkness, freezing temperatures, and fast-moving water, it's incredible that these images were taken at all, much less that they're so clean, clear, and beautiful. These pictures aren't computer-generated, or filmed in front of blue screens and touched-up by artists... they're real.
Surprisingly, Blue Planet: Seas of Life is presented in Dolby 2.0 sound. I say surprisingly because the overall sound is as good as many 5.1 mixes that I've heard. David Attenborough's narration comes across cleanly and clearly, and the theme music has a rich and pleasing sound to it. Ambient sounds from the ocean, from the sonic chirps and squeals of dolphins to the swooshing of passing schools of fish, are also captured nicely on the soundtrack. With more channels it could have been more immersive, but even so it's a very pleasing audio experience.
Each of the four DVDs contains a "making of" featurette for each of the two episodes on the disc. These offer a quite interesting look at the challenges of capturing the footage used in the production, and along the way include additional material that didn't quite make it into the feature. Each DVD also contains text "fact files," which are excerpts from the book The Blue Planet Seas of Life, and a photo gallery. Other special features on various discs include interviews with cameraman Doug Allan, researcher Penny Allen, and producer Alastair Fothergill; "Deep Trouble," a featurette on the impact of humankind on the oceans; a Blue Planet music video; and trailers.
It's worth noting that the DVDs are packaged in keepcases, even though the U.S. distributor of the series is Warner, noted for its flimsy snapper cases. Kudos should go to whoever made the call to package the series in durable plastic DVD cases.
Blue Planet: Seas of Life is simply a must-have documentary. It's fabulously interesting material, presented in an extremely polished and well-crafted manner; the anamorphic widescreen transfer adds the final touch to make this a series that demands to be watched again and again.