Natural scientist Sir David Attenborough lends his considerable authority to a fascinating topic: What would the first life on Earth have looked like, and how did it evolve? Criss-crossing the globe and illustrating creatures with by-now obligatory CGI effects, Discovery delivers an absorbing couple of hours that transforms science into that alien-filled cantina in “Star Wars.” It’s precisely the kind of smart, intellectually demanding fare that the channel has used to differentiate itself from demo-chasing rivals.
Of course, making this kind of material sizzle requires more than just showing guys dusting off fossils, although there’s some of that too. In addition to the computer imagery and nature footage of modern animals that parallel ancient ones, “First Life” employs panoramic photography and sweeping music to create a level of excitement that can’t quite match the octogenarian Sir David’s unbridled enthusiasm.
Reaching back more than 500 million years, Attenborough paints a picture of a very different world, detailing factors that led to “an evolutionary explosion that would lay the foundations for modern man.” The insights include how sexual reproduction hastened evolution, the way specialized predators forced prey to evolve, and an assortment of bizarre-looking evolutionary dead ends found in the fossil data.
Despite the explosion of nature and documentary programming, there’s relatively little available on a par with projects like this, “Planet Earth” or “Life,” all BBC co-ventures. And frankly, the need for such fare seems more pronounced than ever, what with the trend among national political candidates — many of them pandering to religious fundamentalists — expressing hostility toward science.
Attenborough has been associated with this kind of work for more than a half-century, and there are few heirs to replace him. One might hope for another standard-bearer to evolve, but given the forces conspiring to dumb down TV’s nonfiction frontiers, cloning might be the most effective option.