While previously released in the past few years, the titles in the "BBC Natural History Collection," are among some of the finest nature series' produced. From the worldwide known "Planet Earth" all the way back to some of Sir David Attenborough's "Life of..." series, the four titles in this box set share two common threads: firstly, competent, inviting and compelling narration from David Attenborough and secondly, trustworthy, beautiful, and educational programming that speaks to audiences from all walks of life.
THE LIFE OF BIRDS
"The Life of Birds" is quite easily, the weakest of the four programs featured in the set, but standing as a testament to the BBC's production values and the integrity of Attenborough, is still a very solid documentary series. Running an exhausting 10-episodes of 55-minutes each, midway through the set, viewers might begin to experience sensory overload. Call me a "classist," but I was a little perturbed that subject of birds were given almost an hour more time devoted than mammals (see: "The Life of Mammals"). Still, that bias doesn't sway my overall opinion; the facts speak for themselves, "The Life of Birds" is at times "too" comprehensive.
Chances are if you can think of any aspect of a bird's anatomy or life cycle, the program eventually covers it. Basic concepts such as feeding and reproduction are covered and right off the bat, the program sets a high standard of quality, ensuring that a wide swath of individual avian species' are covered representing the planet's diverse global ecosystem. The bookend episodes will likely see the most replays, dealing with primitive bird evolution and the future of species survival respectively. The latter is easily the most engrossing of the series as modern evolutionary adaptations are covered, providing concrete support for the ubiquitous theory set forth by Darwin years ago.
Of note to fans of Attenborough in general, "The Life of Birds" was a personal project, especially is eventual completion. The series itself was spawned in the late 70s from a solitary episode of "Life on Earth," and the result shows Attenborough's love and devotion to education by creating such an exhaustive series. Additionally, the completion of the product and final quality is amazing given Attenborough's wife passed away prior to completion of filming, yet the quality never wanes one iota. "The Life of Birds" is an absolute must-see experience, but the odds are you won't be revisiting more than 25% of the series multiple times.
THE LIFE OF MAMMALS
Released four years after "The Life of Birds," "The Life of Mammals" covers a little over eight hours of material in 10 fascinating and diverse episodes. The sheer variety of mammals themselves makes the lengthy runtime feel more "open," meaning viewers won't likely grow weary of digesting the program over a short amount of time. The most noticeable improvement over Attenborough's previous program is the more visually stimulating widescreen frame; whereas "The Life of Birds" had a "video" look, "The Life of Mammals" is a somewhat grainy but more "film" look. The program wastes no time in setting the stage for a densely packed series, covering the anatomical design and history of mammalian evolution before spending the next eight episodes focusing on unique characteristics across the class.
The series itself is nothing short of amazing as Attenborough introduces viewers to familiar species as well as exotic animals you might not as readily recognize. The focus of the series isn't merely to expose viewers to animals living their day-to-day lives, but to also highlight some of the amazing adaptations these animals have made over generations to survive in a changing world. From animals overcoming a dangerous environment to gain nutrition to utilizing the environment for defense. As with "The Life of Birds," the series ends on a "what's next?" style offering, with the conclusion hitting the logical note of primate to human evolution; the incredible intelligence of primate species is highlighted, including the "humanlike" behavior many exhibit.
Having won multiple awards for cinematography, "The Life of Mammals," is pleasing on a purely visual sense; even without Attenborough's fantastic narration, the visuals speak for themselves. The scope of the world big and small shines through and when possible, technological advances are used to view animals not easily visible with a standard camera. Fans of "Planet Earth" will find "The Life of Mammals" especially interesting as the scope and technical prowess of this earlier series shows some of the same framework utilized in the now legendary, some may call, definitive Attenborough series. "The Life of Mammals" stands proud in this set and will be a delight for newcomers just discovering it the first time.
The packaging of "The Blue Planet" features a quote from producer Alastair Fothergill that encapsulates why you must watch the program: "We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deep oceans." On the surface (no pun intended), the ocean would appear to be a straightforward, uniform place when put alongside the varying land-based biomes of the planet. "The Blue Planet" shatters this illusion via eight, 50-minute episodes that cover familiar locations as the frozen icy landscapes of both poles, to the dark and mysterious depths that house an alien-like menagerie of sea life.
Although David Attenborough didn't have a direct hand in the production of this series (it was produced in between "The Life of Birds" and "The Life of Mammals"), the end product is of no lesser quality and Attenborough's faithful narration is the proper icing on the cake. As expected, Attenborough is a voice of authority and knowledge, providing viewers context with the stunning images displayed on their screens. There is one factor that sets "The Blue Planet" apart in overall terms of quality from the Attenborough produced series' and that is the lack of a true cohesion. Each individual episode is easily digested in standalone fashion, with topics ranging from deep-sea life to the beautiful diversity of tidal communities. There's not a nice "bookend" feel to the open and close of the series that is present with Attenborough's "The Life of..." features, but with also a shorter total running time, the focus on hard fact over theme is understandable.
"The Blue Planet" is a wholly entertaining and engrossing experience that will leave viewers' heads full of fascinating facts and also the chance to introspectively ponder on just how "unknown" the "known world" is. "The Blue Planet" is a stunningly beautiful visual program that introduces a wide variety of species and habitats and goes one step further in showing the careful and delicate balance as the two interact. It should come as no shock that producer Alastair Fothergill was critically involved with "Planet Earth," as the scope of this program (much like "The Life of Mammals") shows yet another seed for the epic, definitive series that would come five years later.
PLANET EARTH: SPECIAL EDITION
The massive set concludes on the highest note, with the now famous, some might call definitive natural history series, "Planet Earth." Broadcast on both the BBC and Discovery Channel, this release features the original BBC narration provided by none other than David Attenborough. Similar to his participation with "The Blue Planet," Attenborough is merely a guide for hire, but the obvious choice when you want viewers to feel a sense of security and trust as they explore the world around them.
Filmed originally in stunning high-definition, "Planet Earth" spans 11, nearly hour long episodes as it reaches to every corner of the globe in an effort to bring familiar and exotic sights to viewers screens on a dual front: both the planet's amazing variety of life is highlighted as well as the often understated natural beauty. Naturally, viewers who come to this series after making their way through the other fantastic programs in this set will see familiar territory is covered, "Planet Earth" is still a must see, must own program, as the sheer technical scope of the production puts it high atop the pedestal of visual supremacy. The creators of the series broke new ground in numerous categories from obtaining the highest aerial footage of the world's largest mountain, Mount Everest, to filming a terrifying swarm of piranha's feeding.
The 11 episode structure allows each episode to focus on specific habitats, from tropical rain forests, to polar ice caps, and varying aquatic environments. There is not an ounce of bias in any environment featured or species highlighted, subconsciously reminding viewers that the most "simple" creature such as a locust is just as special and valuable as flock of graceful and majestic dolphins. The high production values make the awe inspiring landscapes come alive, both in the calm serenity of a long shot, to the close-up view of a particular species interacting with it's habitat.
"Planet Earth" is bound to convert the most cynical, science hater into a believer in wonders of the world around them; it's accessible, beautiful, and informative. I can't think of a single other program of "Planet Earth's" length that I'd watch sans narration, and if the visuals weren't strong enough, the award winning score is evocative and pleasing to the ears. "Planet Earth" is the perfect nature documentary and a great starting point for anyone looking to build a "science" DVD collection.
The individual releases, "The Life of Birds," "The Life of Mammals," and "The Blue Planet," are packaged in standard digipacks while "Planet Earth: Special Edition" comes in book packaging that houses the discs in little slip-sleeves. All four are housed in a sturdy, cardboard outer box.
Video and Audio
THE LIFE OF BIRDS
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer sadly doesn't convey the beauty of the program's subjects or their lush environments. Featuring the hallmarks of a video transfer, most notably the image suffers from compression artifacts, additionally colors are mildly faded and soft looking, more reminiscent of a 1988 production rather than its 1998 genesis.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track has clear vibrant narration but the natural background noise has a more noticeable than expected slight background hiss. Overall, it's a serviceable track with no dynamic range.
THE LIFE OF MAMMALS
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer features a moderate amount of grain, but detail is average to above average at all times, with only some very faint edge-enhancement rearing its head. Colors are more natural, but a little lighter than the crisp image present in "Planet Earth."
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track has some greater than expected depth and clean, clear sound through and through. Attenborough's narration is forceful but finely balanced with atmospheric effects and score. English SDH subtitles are included.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer displays rich intense colors and moderate detail, but with the very "blue" look of the series, compression artifacts are a little more evident. Contrast is thankfully strong and natural, meaning the dark watery underworld landscapes are never obscured of detail.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio tracks are free of noise and finely balanced, with narration front and center, while natural effects and music never overpower one another. English SDH subtitles are included.
PLANET EARTH: SPECIAL EDITION
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer falls short of stunning due to a few technical hiccups that might be more easily forgiven on a program that doesn't largely depend on visual presentation. Colors are natural, vibrant and thankfully never bleed, especially in color rich environments; however, detail is not as strong as one would expect and minor edge-enhancement is evident from time to time. Compression artifacts are kept to a minimum but are noticeable and contrast levels vary from natural to a tad too high.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is solid in all categories with balanced narration, natural effects and the award winning score. An isolated score track is provided for the episodes, allowing those to view the program on a purely visual level to do so. English SDH subtitles are included.
"The Life of Birds" comes devoid of any special features.
"The Life of Mammals" features a few inconsequential extras, including three "behind the scenes featurettes" which are actually short informative bits about specific animals. A text-based "Fact Files" provides additional insight, while a photo gallery, music video, and audio selections from the score, feel like cheap filler.
"The Blue Planet" contains bonus features spread across the four main program discs as well as fifth disc of pure supplemental features. Each program in the series contains an accompanying, roughly 10-minute making-of featurette; additionally, an interview with the series producer as well as deep-sea researcher is included alongside text-based fact files and still image galleries.
The fifth disc contains four full-length documentaries on a wide swatch of supplemental, educational based subjects. "Amazon Abyss" runs nearly an hour and focuses on the Amazon river, while "Dive to Shark Volcano" also runs around an hour and focuses on a group of sharks whose habitat was uniquely formed. Two "Being There" documentaries running under 30-minutes each cover "Antarctica" and "Between the Tides," specifically tidal areas near Africa.
"Planet Earth: Special Edition" features a sizable amount of bonus features starting with commentary tracks on the episodes "From Pole to Pole," "Mountains," "Caves," "Great Plains," and "Shallow Seas." Additionally, each episode has an accompanying, roughly 10-minute long "Planet Earth Diary" which acts a min behind-the-scenes featurette. Disc four contains a "greatest hits" type presentation titled "Great Planet Earth Moments" while disc six contains a set of bonus full length programs including "Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth," "Secrets of the Maya Underground," and "Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert." All in all, a loaded release that earns it's special edition classification.
Four fantastic programs, the least of which is steps beyond being merely "mediocre," the "BBC Natural History Collection" is a must purchase release for those not owning these fantastic titles already. In a perfect world, I'd have rather seen the first two titles in their own box set along with Attenborough's other "Life of..." specials and their spots here filled with "Life" and "Nature's Great Events," I can't complain at the value of such a technically sound, bonus-laden, package. DVD Talk Collector Series.