Alibi V.16 No.15 • April 12-18, 2007 

Idiot Box

“Planet Earth” on Discovery

If ever there was an argument in favor of going down to Best Buy right now and purchasing yourself an HDTV, it’s Discovery Channel’s stunning new nature series “Planet Earth.”

This 11-part miniseries boasts an impressive set of statistics: five years in the making and more than 200 filming locations around the globe. The show first aired on the BBC where it was narrated by Sir Richard Attenborough. Americans have been spared the horror of a cultured U.K. accent thanks to new American narrator Sigourney Weaver, but the rich content remains unsullied. The show is a follow-up of sorts to the impressive series “Blue Planet,” which gave us countless indelible images of life under the sea.

“Planet Earth” takes a broader approach, concentrating on a single climatic region for each hour-long show. Mountains, jungles, deserts, forests all get their due, showing us a different slice of our planetary ecosystem each time.

The show’s biggest claim to fame is its use of incredible new digital filmmaking technology, which lets documentarians capture nature footage from a great distance. This respectful (often airborne) vantage point has allowed all kinds of jaw-dropping sequences to be filmed without disturbing the natural behavior of the subjects. At least once every episode, our soothing narrator informs us that we’re about to see something that has never been filmed before. Short, behind-the-scenes segments aired just before the end credits show us the lengths that some of these cameramen went to in order to capture this footage--camping out in remote locations for up to a year in hopes of snagging just a few precious frames of video.

The series is so damn gorgeous it’s easy to overlook a few of its flaws. Honestly, lost as I am in the pure eye-popping dazzle of it all, I’m not entirely sure I’ve really learned much of anything. For starters, every effort has been made to turn this into a “family” event--hence, the show cuts away from many of the harsher realities of the animal kingdom. Exhilarating predator-prey chases are bloodless and often deathless. Hell, even Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” gave us the occasional honest assessment of an antelope’s lifespan on the African plains. Kids need to be aware that the “circle of life” sometimes means a crocodile rips the neck out of some unsuspecting zebra.

Also, the show hops around the globe at such a breakneck pace, it’s sometimes hard to get oriented. Are we in the Gobi Desert or the Sahara? Asia or South America? A few title cards, maybe a map or two, might have been helpful.

Still, the show wants its images to speak for themselves, and its hard to argue when you’re watching hundreds of neon-hued rainbow lizards catching flies in Africa or elusive snow leopards hauling their dinner up the treacherous slopes of the Himalayas. “Planet Earth” shows off our globe in a way that simply inspires awe over the beauty, complexity and ingenuity of nature, ... and high-definition TV sets.

“Planet Earth” airs Sundays at 6 p.m. on Discovery Channel.