From the same BBC crew that produced Earth: The Biography a couple of years ago comes this similarly themed follow up, How The Earth Changed History, once again narrated by Iain Stewart. The series takes on the 'untold story of history' by focusing on five specific aspects of geography and geology and explaining how it has had an impact and in turn influenced human evolution. This isn't the type of history generally covered in high school textbooks but it's no less important and no less interesting. Couple that with the BBC's ability to capture stunning high definition images of all the wonders that the Earth has to offer and you wind up with an interesting mix of history and science that is as fascinating to listen to as it is engrossing to watch. A treat for the eyes and the mind, Stewart's narration is highbrow enough to ensure that he sounds like he knows what he's talking about but not so snooty that you won't want to listen to him. He's as enthusiastic about the subject matters as he is passionate about his work and as the series plays out and his theories take shape, it's hard not to get won over by him.
Here's a look at the five parts that make up whole of the series, spread across two Blu-ray discs in the following order:
Water: This opening salvo makes the case that human civilization sprung up around areas of water and that those civilizations that had access to water prospered faster and more frequently because of it. Stewart makes a great example out of Egypt, by explaining how easy access to the Nile River allowed them to travel, to irrigate and to grow crops. Other civilizations are covered as well, each one like the other having sprouted up around a large body of water.
Deep Earth: This second installment explains how different early civilizations unwittingly wound up moving towards fault lines, which they were able to exploit in order to obtain the different mineral deposits that tend to be contained in these areas. Of course, as we all know nowadays, living on or near fault lines can come with its own sets of problems, particularly when those plates shift and earthquakes erupt.
Wind: It's not something you often think about but wind has evidently also played a rather large part in how civilization has developed over the centuries. Gusts of wind have lead to sailing ships which in turn lead to exploration, expansion and trade across the globe. Now this wasn't always a good thing, for as different civilizations met there were wars and issues with human slave trafficking, but there were also, of course, quite a lot of positive aspects such as the sharing of technology and agriculture that came of this.
Fire: When man discovered fire and how to create, and to a certain extent, control it, humankind was able to become master of the environment. Fire allowed people who clear land quickly and easily, which meant more farms could be built and a much more rapid pace than ever before. Fire also let to the ability to forge objects out of metal, such as tools and weapons, as well as more obvious uses like heating.
The Human Planet: The final chapter of the series does a good job of bringing things full circle as it explores mankind's impact on the Earth rather than the other way around. Of course, there's an environmental message to this one, and rightly so given the oil spill currently devastating the Gulf Coast at the time of this writing, and this entry explores how the Earth has changed since mankind was able to use earth, wind, fire, and water to his advantage.
There's a lot to this series aside from the more obvious aspects you'd expect. While of course it's obvious that a civilization that sets up camp near water is going to have easier access to drinking water the series explores all manner of different ways that each of the five topics has influenced things. Stewart wraps it all up with some fairly common sense style narration and thesis' and as the show plays out we learn not only about the basics of historical evolution but how some of these aspects affected everything from technology to religion to war to disasters and atrocities aplenty. It's a very unique series, and one that anyone with an interest in anthropology or environmental history would do well to seek out.
How The Earth Changed History arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080i 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition transfer. The transfers are a bit erratic - some shots look razor sharp and show amazing detail and color reproduction while others appear soft and not quite on par with what you'd hope for given the BBC's track record with nature documentaries. The source material is always very clean - the show was shot on HD video so there are no problems with print damage, dirt or debris to complain about. Color reproduction is generally quite strong and quite vivid while black levels remain fairly deep and don't break up at all. There is some jitter here and there as well as a bit of aliasing now and then, but even during these moments the image is watchable enough. At times very impressive and at other times fairly flat, there isn't the consistency here that we might have hoped for. Overall, the picture is okay, but not far from flawless.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, with closed captioning provided in English. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitles offered. There isn't a ton of enveloping audio here in terms of effects and what not, but the score is spread out quite effectively. The rear channels do spring to life during thunderstorms or when there's a lot of activity going on around Stewart, but this is generally a fairly front heavy mix. It works well, however, as it delivers the contextual narration in a clear and concise manner. It's never hard to understand Stewart as he explains the different theories that make up the presentation and the levels are always well balanced. This won't be your 'go to demo disc' but it certainly sounds quite good.
There isn't a ton of extra material here, but the BBC has supplied an interview with the series' host, Iain Stewart, entitled Filming In Extremes. Broken up into three parts - The Crystal Caves, Walking Through Fire and Paragliding - there's about nineteen minutes worth of material here, all presented in standard definition anamorphic widescreen. Here, Stewart discusses the highs and lows of his job and what it was like travelling and shoot out in some rather unforgiving climates and environments. It's fairly interesting stuff, but one can't help wish that there was a bit more effort put into the supplements on this package.
How The Earth Changed History is an interesting mix of anthropology, geology and, as the title suggest, history. Stewart's narration does a fine job of explaining how the shifts and changes that have occurred on the Earth have had an effect on the climate and environment and in turn on mankind as a whole. The video quality isn't quite perfect but it's pretty decent, as is the audio, and while the extras are light, the content is interesting enough that this set comes easily recommended for the history or nature documentary buff.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.