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.