Monday, March 26, 2007

Planet Earth Runs at the Wrong Speed

Planet Earth, the new 11-part documentary from the Discovery Channel and the BBC, promises more than it delivers. Or maybe it delivers what it promises, but we've become so numb to seeing gorgeous images of land and animal all over the television dial that it's near impossible to pull off something truly awe-inspiring.

None of which is to say that Planet Earth is bad, just that it's not the revolutionary leap it professes to be.

There's nothing wrong with the images, which are beautifully shot and impeccably edited, but after three episodes they get a bit redundant. Seemingly everything in this show moves in either slow-motion or fast-motion. It's often extraordinary - such as a one-second shark attack leaping out of the water to snag a seal slowed down to 47 seconds or numerous time-lapse sequences of clouds pouring over mountain ranges - but slow-down scene after sped-up scene feels a bit dishonest after a time. Yes, seeing a vampire squid unfurling in the dark deep is beautiful, but Planet Earth relies on beauty to the point where it's little more than a moving post-card, beautiful but not deep.

Three episodes debuted on Sunday night - "Pole to Pole," "Mountains," and "Deep Ocean" - and they all follow the same basic structure: an unconnected set of vignettes with an emphasis on predator/prey relations. The opening episode, "Pole to Pole" offers a loose structure of moving from the North Pole to the South Pole but it was so loose as to be nearly absent. It starts very strong, slowly working down from polar bears in the Arctic down to the start of the planetary tree-line in northern Canada, but this overt structure is soon forgotten and Planet Earth dissolves into one vignette after another.

As 10-15 minute chunks, it's fine, but taken as a whole it all starts to bleed into a whole host of other documentaries shown all over the place. We could definitely use a stronger narrative - if you're going to have a narrator, you might as well have them tell a story instead of sounding like she's narrating her vacation photos.

Worse, while the production is entitled Planet Earth, it's real focus is on the non-human creatures that populate the planet - there's little about the actual Earth, except for a few quick infodumps through narration and time-lapse photography.

It's interesting television but it's not compelling television. It also relies on its beauty to go light on the science. In the segment on the panda bear (you knew there'd be a panda bear segment, just like you knew there'd be a polar bear segment and a penguin segment) from "Mountains," narrator Sigourney Weaver informs that the panda doesn't hibernate like other bears because it's sole food supply is bamboo, which doesn't provide enough nutrients to build up the fat needed to hibernate. This also prevents the mother panda from providing nutritious milk to its babies, resulting in the mother panda being able to provide for only one baby at a time; if she gives birth to two offspring, one is abandoned.

The obvious question - why is bamboo their only source of food? The panda is a bear, after all, so why doesn't it hunt? A quick perusal of the World Wildlife Fund website reveals pandas "are closely related to bears and have the digestive system of a carnivore, but they have adapted to a vegetarian diet and depend almost exclusively on bamboo as a food source." Even more, its not bamboo that's light in nutrients, but rather that pandas are "not designed to process plant matter," meaning "the panda's digestive system cannot easily break down the cellulose in bamboo, so pandas must eat huge amounts - as much as 83 pounds or about 40 kg, and for up to 14 hours, each day." So pandas have chosen to become herbivores yet have chosen to stake their health on a food source that doesn't provide them with an adequate diet. I didn't hear an adequate explanation of that seemingly colossally bad decision.

That kind of information isn't what Planet Earth is going for, but if you half-raise an idea it's not really the audience's fault for completing it.

Further, there's plenty of rare footage - several times already they've heralded their footage with narration like "this is the first time a complete wolf hunt of caribou has been captured on film" or "this is the first instance of recorded intimate behavior between snow leopards," and so on. And it is amazing footage to see, for the first time, a mother snow leopard caring for her one year old cub (which is nearly her size yet incapable of hunting for itself), but, honestly, when you look at it, it's a cat licking another cat and anyone who's seen a domesticated cat give birth to a litter has seen this behavior. I'm not arguing all cats are the same, of course, just that if Ripley wasn't telling you it was the first time you were seeing it, you wouldn't think it was the first time you were seeing it.

And while it's great that they've captured a wolf hunting down a young caribou, if we're only getting to see one minute or so of edited footage, then it looks just like any other wolf hunting down a deer we've ever seen. The show can't show the entire hunt, of course, due to time restraints, but when you draw attention to what makes you unique and then the final result you offer doesn't look all that unique it's not the audience's fault if the footage appears to come up short.

The show is stronger when they show you the moments you are not familiar with seeing - such as elephants swimming in the Okavango Delta, or the Delta itself coming alive each year as the water rushes in, or a mother panda caring for her infant inside a darkened cave, or the teamwork between dolphins and birds to trap a school of bait fish so that they both may feed. For every sequence that's awe-inspiring, though, there's one you've sworn you've seen before, and no matter how gorgeous the images are, the repetitive hunter/hunted trope wears thin.

I'm sure I'll tune in every Sunday night to catch each new episode but the show is a bit of a letdown. Too many pretty pictures too often sped up or slowed down result in a show about nature that doesn't actually represent nature, as it is, all that much. We're getting a soft sell here - we're getting the visual but we're not getting it is nature gives it to us. We're also not getting the sound to go along with it. Nature is beautiful, but it's also raw, powerful, and comes with a kick-ass soundtrack.

You don't get a sense of that rawness, of that power, anywhere in Planet Earth, to the detriment of my enjoyment.

Planet Earth airs Sunday night at 8 PM EST on the Discovery Channel.


Tommbert said...

Though I can't really comment on this particular show (no cable), I can say that I know what you mean about nature shows in general. I remember as a kid watching those old school shows you mentioned in your previous post--Marty Stouffer's Wild America was one of my favorites.

Whatever the version, time-lapse and slow-mo animal antics are the standard by which these shows often get judged. If it's "spectacular" it's because the editing was good, and moreover has little if anything to do with what's in the footage. Oh, and if something dies, it's even better--but if the prey narrowly escapes, we all feel better despite the cheetah/wolf/etc. that lopes off hungry. The point is that it often seems as you rightly point out that the criticism on these things is misplaced. Even an overview of the headlines seems to indicate that visual-centered response (or at least implies our response to it). "'PE' Takes Your Breath Away" (USA Today). "Wonders Never Cease On PE" (Washington Post). "'PE' Gives You A Close-Up View of Natural Beauty" (Louisville Courier-Journal). "Spectacular 'PE' is Raw, Realistic" (Seattle Time). "Behold 'PE' in All its Glory" (Again, strangely, USA Today). Sheesh. I understand that television is a visual medium. However, if, as you point out, it's light on the information, then I can at least understand why these sound this way.

As a genre the nature documentary is a tough one. Do you show all of the hours (given all the camera angles that might have been in play) of the wolf hunt or do you edit? How much? Do you dub in sound? Do you have the narrator explain the pieces or let it stand? As a document, part of me wants the unedited footage and no voice-over. At the same time, I'm no wildlife biologist--and aren't these shows for dummies like me?

For something different, I thought I would post up the link for the rawest wildlife doc--the Africam. This web-cam has been broadcasting for god knows how many years. And not a damn thing happens on it because it's hot and tiring to be in the African savanna. Anything you see has to happen by chance, or, better said, the animals' inclinations. Even as a I type this at 5:15 ET, it's 11:15 in South Africa. Nobody's coming for a drink. Only the insects make a ruckus. The moon is out. It's kind of pleasant. After I had had it on about a half hour, there was some new kind of noise, but no visual. Like a hoot that varied in pitch and timbre. No idea. I am actually kind of happy not knowing, either.

I can say this about the Africam: I like it and am happy to see it, though that might be more of a confession about how I feel about the one channel I get. Bottom line, it makes for lousy television. So I guess Discovery and the BBC have that part figured out.

Tommbert said...

Amusing addendum: If you happened to follow the Wild America link from above, you might have stumbled across this gem. Clicking the link that claims it will take you to the site for the movie actually takes you to a page advertising Pokemon 3. Gold!

trout said...

How do you know when a show is a little suspect? When Oprah can't shut up about it. And when all subsequent ads for the show tout the plug from Oprah.

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