From the breathtaking cinematography to Sigourney Weaver’s crisp narration, everything about “Planet Earth” screams class — an 11-part series, spread over five successive Sundays, conveying not only the wonder of nature but the arduous process of catching its machinations on film. Viewers can debate which images are the most jaw-dropping — call it a toss-up between a polar bear fighting a walrus for survival, and a great white shark leaping completely out of the water to grab a seal — but as assembled, it’s a major achievement, making glorious use of aerial and time-lapse photography to bring epic grandeur to each chapter.
Discovery has ventured into a variety of areas to attract a younger audience — along with the rest of the TV biz –sometimes stumbling in that chase. Yet in this first-rate production tailored to high-definition viewing, “Discovery Atlas” and its ongoing relationship with Ted Koppel, the cabler has burnished its image with a prestigious spine — representing genuine standards for nature, travel and current-events fare.
Created by the team responsible for Discovery’s “Blue Planet,” if there’s a quibble here, it’s that the themes affixed to the individual hours feel somewhat arbitrary, slicing the globe into topics like “Great Plains,” “Jungles” and “Ice Worlds.” The overall contents, however, are consistently breathtaking.
Images flash by that aren’t easily forgotten, and the narration adds to the sense that we’re witnessing something special, frequently referring to “never before seen” footage of, say, a snow leopard hunting or a pride of lions attempting to bring down an elephant in a frenzied nighttime attack, chronicled via infrared imagery.
Years in the making, the production deftly employs overhead views to present the vastness of a sprawling caribou herd, hyenas chasing down an impala or a locust swarm, before zooming in to show baboons gingerly walking upright through a stream or bizarre troglodytes residing in the lightless abyss of caves. The same approach applies to Earth itself, from the majestic sweep of the Himalayas to the Gobi Desert blanketed in snow.
In keeping with the whole “circle of life” motif, the life-and-death struggles here are depicted with Darwinian bluntness, as the weak or young fall victim to predators that occasionally fail in their pursuit and thus face extermination themselves.
At the same time, “Planet Earth” heightens our appreciation not just for the natural world but also the patience, perseverance and sheer luck required to document these events. Toward that end, each episode closes with a few minutes, dubbed “capturing the moment,” illustrating the lengths to which the production crews went to bring home their precious reels.
“Nobody should have to live one month in poo,” mutters one crew member in a later installment, having camped out in a cave occupied by thousands of bats, whose thick layer of guano provides the food for a delicate (if mildly nauseating) ecosystem.
If it’s any consolation, from the comfort of the couch, the sacrifice was totally worth it. Besides, he’s hardly the first person to endure a little poo in order to make it in showbiz.