Planet Earth

This evening, I caught most of some episodes of this series the Discovery Channel is airing, Planet Earth, which was advertised here for a while. It wasn’t bad. It had some spectacular photography, did a great job of displaying a wide range of environments, and showed off some of the amazing abilities of animals very well. There were a few things that irritated me, though (I admit it, I criticize everything).

The biggest problem? It’s a show for people with short attention spans. We got brief vignettes of a few minutes—you’d just be getting into the pumas and alpacas in Patagonia, and zip, we’re off to grizzly bears in the Rockies. It was popcorn biology, crunch crunch crunch, you’ve snarfed down a whole bag a few kernels at a time.

That quick glimpse of each biome also meant the focus was entirely on the biggest, most distinctive organisms in the environment, the ol’ charismatic megafauna problem of nature documentaries. For instance, several of the scenes featured whale sharks or dolphins or sailfish chowing down on these great schools of generically named “bait fish”…but hey, wait a minute, aren’t these “bait fish” a rather critical component of the ecosystem? Why not tell us more about them? Treating them as convenient clouds of meat for bigger predators didn’t seem to do them justice.

Still, it was worth watching, and maybe younger kids would have an easier time getting into it. After a few hours exposure, I was feeling a bit whipsawed by the too frequent changes in subject.


  1. says

    Well, that’s the sucky side of being an expert on something, eh? I’m sure that a well-made feature like this can do a lot to inspire children to consider a future in many related fields, or to open up ideas and avenues of learning for older folks.

  2. Bachalon says

    You might like a movie titled “Baraka.” It’s a feature length, non-narrative film. Nothing more than a series of shots from around the world, but damn if it isn’t something to look at. A friend and I saw the preview for “Planet Earth” while we were waiting to see “300.” We both agreed that it looked like a cheap knockoff.

    Just a friendly recommendation.

  3. says

    Plus the usual “every moment is a life-or-death” struggle too common in nature shows these days. The shot of the great white leaping was pretty cool, but there is a lot more neat stuff in their biology. Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed. Or were the old Cousteau shows like that as well? I don’t remember…..

  4. says

    You heathen. How dare you speak out against the documentary maker’s right to saturate our emotions with charismatic megafauna. There is a squidly hell waiting for heathens like you my friend.

  5. Christian Burnham says

    I suspect the first episode was designed to give a fairly superficial overview. I haven’t seen the other two yet.

    Can anyone say Rome and Battlestar Galactica series finale?

    It’s been a busy night for TV.

  6. TAW says

    Of course… it’s pretty much IMPOSSIBLE to film every biome in planet earth, give credit to every single important organism or group of organisms out there, and follow the lives of them too. As it is, it took 5 years (I think?) to make and it’s ELEVEN episodes long.

    Maybe it’s MY urge to criticize, but c’mon, everything can’t be perfect. If you want to learn about every component of every environment on earth and stuff that’s great, but asking a TV series to do that is crazy. That’s what college is for. TV is for getting people interested in stuff, college is for all the nitty gritty details.

    Besides, Attenborough DID do a series about the often ignored micro fauna (Life in the undergrowth). You can’t have it all.

  7. Ian H Spedding FCD says

    I had the same impression, that it was tailored to the “MTV generation” attention-span. On the other hand, the cost of producing something that must be so high that, to recoup it, you have to make it appeal to the broadest possible audience.

    What I did miss was the commentary of someone enthusiastic like David Attenborough, whose enthusiasm springs from an extensive knowledge and love of the subject. Somehow, a generic narration intoned by a professional actor doing their best ‘hushed reverence’ thing doesn’t cut it.

  8. TAW says

    Oh yeah. The one thing I do HATE is that they replaced David Attenborough. It’s just mind boggling that they would do that.

  9. says

    I didn’t understand that myself. Sigourney Weaver is OK, but I thought a British accent was pretty much indispensable in adding the perfect high-falutin’ tone to anything on TV.

  10. says

    If the show grabs the attention of a child for every biologist it annoys, it will be well worth it. We need as many kids interested in science as possible.

  11. says

    I expected the program to be short on info and long on the visuals, but I can’t believe they ditched Attenborough’s narration for Sigourney Weaver’s. Horrible move.

  12. craig says

    I’ve noticed that with a lot of things lately. NOVA, for instance, seems to be “MTVed-down” the last couple of years.
    Last fall I watched it for the first time in a few years, and I was convinced right up until the end-credits that I was seeing a special “Nova for Kids” special.

  13. craig says

    As far as the change in narration, that’s pretty standard.
    Many “Nova” shows start out as “Horizon” shows in the UK. They are identical except for the US-accent change in the narration.
    I watch a lot of straight-from-the-uk video, and have noticed that many documentary shows come to the US from the UK and they always have this done… “Walking with Dinosaurs,” etc.

    I think it happens occasionally in reverse, US-accented shows being re-narrated for the UK, but not nearly as universally. I’m sure UK tv viewers are far more used to hearing US accents.

    I guess its part of our national distrust of “furriners.”

  14. LK says

    The point of the Planet Earth series is to highlight the diversity of life even within similar ecosystems. And ecosystems is the key word here. This isn’t a documentary about animals, it’s a documentary about ecosystems. If you’re after detail on specific animals you should look at Attenborough’s other efforts. Life of Mammals, Secret life of plants etc. Plus try and buy the series from Amazon in the UK [download the torrents if you have to]. Attenborough’s enthusiam for his subject must surely play a key role in how successful his documentaries are.

  15. BlueIndependent says

    You criticisms, though more detailed than any pre-show commentary I’ve heard, pretty much line up with what I have heard about this series. It’s pretty, but beauty is only skin-deep.

    Personally, I think it’s a good series to help make people understand why ecosystems and what we have on this planet are so important. To me, it seems as if it’s more intended to be an advocacy piece than an outright documentary. And I think if it changes a few minds in that way, it is a good thing. There is of course the desire to have it be informative for all the right reasons, but at least it’s doing a little good if not a lot.

  16. says

    I missed it. I forgot about it. I wanted to watch it for the beautiful images: I’m never going to go snorkelling with the whales, dammit. And I have a high tolerance for portentious narration. But if you don’t like it, just turn the sound off. But my weekend was taken up with family-related driving, the first long bike ride of spring, and country dancing; working on a dismal writing contract (1 week to go); and cooking and housework. Whenever I could fit in a minute I was dipping in to Carl Zimmer’s book “Evolution,” which is wonderful. It flows, it’s easy to understand, it’s exciting, it’s breezy: it rolls off the mind’s tongue like cream.

  17. Andrew Cooper says

    What LK said plus, not being a zoologist, I’m always amazed that these series always manage to come up with behaviours (and often species) I’ve never come aross before. The thing isn’t supposed to be an in-depth study. The BBC do plenty of those but perhaps they don’t reach your side of the pond.

    And dumping Attenborough!! What on earth are those chaps at Discovery thinking of?!

  18. JW Tan says

    The Blue Planet had a bit more on “bait fish”, with a marvellous segment on the Sardine Run.

    Anyway, Planet Earth was a flagship documentary aimed at getting people who normally don’t watch the stuff (including many people too old for MTV) into natural history. It’s extremely successful at that here in the UK.

    Getting into the details is not what it was for. The whole idea was to bring nature to life on television, for entertainment purposes, not to create a lecture on deserts, caves or what not. For that, I visit Pharyngula, Tetrapod Zoology, or read a book…

  19. James Orpin says

    I think the title of the programme tells you everything. It’s about the planet or at least different parts of the the planet. Animals play an important part in the life of the planet but so do lots of other things and the programme does a decent job balancing those different elements.

    As a prime example check out the episode on caves. A few cool cave animals illustrating what adaptations are needed to live in a cave interspresed with some images of cave systems few of us will ever see (visable haolclines, giant crystals).

  20. NC Paul says

    Having seen the whole series through on BBC and on DVD – the first programme is a general overview of all the main biotas on the planet – hence all the jumping about.

    In each of the following programmes, they concentrate on one biota. If it’s invertebrates you like, I have a feeling you’ll especially enjoy the programme on caves.

    Trust me, having seen some of the stuff that passes for wildlife documentaries on other channels, Planet Earth is not MTV nature. Even without David Attenborough’s narration (though that’s pretty damn sacrilegious).

  21. says

    I’ve only seen a brief glimpse of the dumbed-down Discovery version, and it sucks hard compared to the original. As said above, dumping Attenborough is ridiculous. Not only that, but the american commentaries are very bad. While D.A. is at the same time concise, clear and enlightening, the new ones are redundant, uninformative and uninspiring.

    The delivery, above everything else, sucks hard. Attenborough is able to communicate his excitement about the most minute detail like no one else. The american voice sounds like a bored underpaid tour guide.

  22. says

    Fret not, plenty of small animals too. The waterfall-dwelling cave fish that eat bacteria are especially interesting

  23. poke says

    I thought it was great when I saw it here in the UK. The jumping around was mostly in the first episode and one or two others where they were comparing different parts of the Earth. Most of the episodes were more focused. I can’t imagine it without Attenborough narrating though.

  24. Mark H. says

    I too am mystified as to why they replaced David Attenborough with Sigourney Weaver. As others have pointed out, his enthusiasm for the subject is priceless. It isn’t as if he has an incomprehensible English accent, is it? I suspect that replacing the narrator allowed them to minimise the mention of the “E” word, which the bulk of Americans seem to find disturbing. I hope I’m wrong.

  25. Silmarillion says

    I absolutely loved the series for its spectacular landmark sequences – the flyover of the South American waterfall, the shark catching the fur seal, the birds of paradise displaying. I’ve also just finished reading the book that showcases the behind-the-scenes moments, and this is an interesting tidbit from the introduction:

    Research showed that viewers liked its [Blue Planet – the previous series] novelty – species, locations, sequences they hadn’t seen before. They loved its ‘epic’ scale. And they were impressed by the colour and drama. ‘It didn’t feel like a lecture,’ says [producer Alastair] Fothergill. ‘It was emotional, cinematic.’

    Sticking to that brief has meant that Planet Earth, too, is epic, dramatic, groundbreaking, ’emotional’. Every programme of the 11 contains, says Fothergill, two or three sequences that have never been filmed before.

    Its palette is planet wide.

  26. Flex says

    I watched all three of the episodes shown last night on the Discovery HD channel, and I found the photography absolutely amazing!

    However, I find P.Z.’s criticism apt. The show on oceans jumped around so rapidly to be sometimes a little confused. Then the narration was pretty much always in that hushed tone of awe when I would have preferred a more enthusiastic narrator (which may be simply personal taste).

    After each show there was a 15 minute mini-documentary about how they filmed the series. I found the raw footage far more interesting than the edited stuff. There is something about hearing the sounds as the film was recorded, whether it is of helicopters or random wilderness noises, which appeals to me more than an aggressive classical background track. (And I love classical music.)

    For those readers of Pharynugla who saw the original series, how long was each episode?

    I’m only making a rough guess, but I would estimate that each episode on the Discovery Channel is about 35 minutes long (once you remove the commercials). Is that about right, or did our American media overlords cut this program into smaller bits?

  27. G. Shelley says

    I think it was an hour in total – including the 10 minute “making of feature”, though I suppose it could have been 45 minutes
    I think any series such as this needs to balance being informative and dramatic – it is made with the intent that people will watch after all

  28. Bess says

    From Wikipedia: “Each programme is of around 58 minutes’ duration. This includes Planet Earth Diaries, a 10-minute featurette that details the filming of a particular event”. So I guess it was butchered a bit.

  29. Marcia says

    Hope you watched it in HD.

    “”Planet Earth” will be released April 24 on all three DVD formats — regular DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray — and the two cutting-edge formats will feature the original narration of naturalist-explorer David Attenborough.

    Unfortunately, Discovery couldn’t leave swell enough alone when importing this production, which aired last year in Canada and the United Kingdom. Attenborough’s voice was foolishly replaced with a languorous, drowsy narration by actress Sigourney Weaver, who was chosen for her reputation as a conservationist.”

  30. Ginger Yellow says

    “As far as the change in narration, that’s pretty standard.
    Many “Nova” shows start out as “Horizon” shows in the UK. They are identical except for the US-accent change in the narration.”

    I doubt you’re missing much. Horizon has really gone downhill since the early nineties. There’s about ten minutes of information in each episode and the rest is just filler.

    As for Planet Earth, the focus is on habitats, not on individual species. And yes, it’s definitely more about the pretty pictures than anything else. If you want (somewhat) detailed studies of usually ignored animals, watch Life in the Undergrowth or something like that. That said the cave episode with the vast mound of batshit and cockroaches was pretty spectacular. The one on forests is very good too.

    A friend and I saw the preview for “Planet Earth” while we were waiting to see “300.” We both agreed that it looked like a cheap knockoff.

    Hardly. Minute for minute it’s pretty much the most expensive programme the BBC has ever made.

  31. Graculus says

    Attenborough is able to communicate his excitement about the most minute detail like no one else.

    “I’m speaking very quietly so that these Komodo dragons I’m standing among don’t kill me”.

  32. says

    I found that just I was getting interested in a subject, they’d leap tangentially off to some other part of the world. The photography was beautiful, however. If I sold HD TVs, Planet Earth would be running on my showroom floor nonstop.

    My biggest peeve, though, was before they showed any of their “groundbreaking” shots, they’d pat themselves on the back and say something like, “For the first time ever captured on film…” or “Our amazing technology allow us to film for the first time ever…”. Save that for the 10-minute featurette about how you filmed it.

  33. says

    So many of the complaints here remind me of the type where people read a book, then watch a movie based on the book, and complain when the movie doesn’t have as much detail. Think about the medium, and what they’re trying to accomplish. (Then again, you could say their whole approach is wrong, and that knowing the limits of TV, they shouldn’t have tackled something so big.)

    I agree with Mike A’s one comment, about how it got old that they’d ” pat themselves on the back” every time they were about to show something that hadn’t been filmed before, but on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I got to see animals I’d never seen before, and it was beautiful.

    Did anyone take the time to visit the website they advertised? Was there much more information there, or was it all fluff? If it was informative, that strikes me as a good balance – TV for visuals, and internet for detailed information.

    One last thing, I haven’t heard the David Attenborough narration. For someone who has seen both versions – is there that much difference in actual information delivered, or is it more delivery style?

  34. RichVR says

    I would have happily watched an entire episode about Vampyroteuthis infernalis. A beautiful and creepy beastie.

  35. Dunc says

    They replaced [i]David Attenborough[/i]!? Are there no depths the Discovery Channel won’t sink to? I’d like to believe that there’s a special place in Hell reserved for such sacrilige, but I guess I’ll just have to console myself with the thought that being an idiot is it’s own punishment. :(

  36. Vince says

    I watched only about half of the three hours last night (recorded the rest to watch later) and enjoyed it. I won’t turn down any well made nature documentary. That said, I agree with PZ’s criticism about it jumping around a bit much. My preferences go back to the old Nature documentaries with George Page narrating (my fave…better than Sir David, though my son and I do a terrific impression of his halting British delivery….maybe I can watch Planet Earth with the sound off and do my own Attenborough narration then). Before watching Planet Earth last night, I watched something I recorded a while back – a PBS show called Wild Things or something like that. It was about the Corcovado rain forest in Costa Rica during an unusual drought. A whole hour of focus on that ecosystem was wonderful. Just the animals, plants, weather and no one jumping around trying to catch any of the animals.

    I should add that I like Sigourney as an actress but found her narration to be a bit chomatose.

  37. Dylan Llyr says

    It’s essentially nature porn. And what’s wrong with that? Visuals are just stunning; they went out of their way to capture shots we wouldn’t normally see (apparently they spent 12 weeks trawling the Gobi desert trying to spot some camels). The cave episode in particular is just amazing.

    Seems to me that it was meant to be awe-inspiring above all. I’d agree that at times it moved on too quickly, and there was some overlap between various episodes. Focusing on a particular form of ecosystem in each episode was a lovely idea and overall it probably works, but it was inevitably untidy at times; nature obviously cannot quite be so conveniently categorised.

    But anyway, I loved it (I’ve only seen the British version; he decision to switch Attenborough sounds absolutely revolting). The series cost £8m to make and it took a few years, so it’s been a monumental project. They’ve more than made up the money too which is nice.

  38. Jason says

    I doubt the footage they have comes very easy. There were many things shown during these three episodes that, until now, had never been filmed… never seen. And many more things rarely seen.

    I think Discovery was shooting for the “big picture” here… trying to move people. They were also shooting in HD. You missed out if you didn’t get to see these images in high definition.

    I think it’s a great series so far. It does jump around quite a bit, but come on… they’re only working with the film they have. I think what they have is pretty damn amazing.

  39. Flex says

    The criticisms directed at Planet Earth are minor. It’s a case where you see something great, but you can use imagination to think of how it could be just a little bit better.

    You might really enjoy a banana split, but maybe adding some sprinkles would have made the experiance just a little bit more enjoyable.

    I found the elephants playing underwater scene just wonderous.
    But the jumps were a little abrupt. Which is why I wondered if they had removed maybe 10 minutes of Attenborough segues, then noticed that they needed a new narrative track. I have no evidence of this of course. I guess I’ll just have to buy the DVDs when they are released.

    From what I’ve seen so far, I could easily just have the series running on my TV, with the sound off, just for background atmosphere. (It certainly blows the video fireplaces or video fishtanks right out of the water.)

  40. Dan says


    Please do a post on the Vampyroteuthis infernalis, “Vampire Squid from Hell”. (Greatest….binomial nomenclature….ever!).

    Amazing creature.

  41. jbark says

    Guys, you’re all missing the point of the show.

    It’s biggest selling point is that it was all filmed in HD, and you don’t film in HD in order to flesh out detailed explanations of small unobtrusive creatures.

    It’s all about seeing a crystal clear whale shark on a 70″ screen. And while my screen’s only 50″, it was still pretty kick ass.

  42. says

    the “seas of life” series was way mroe interesting and seemed more in depth.
    a whole series about say sardines would be a blast wouldn’t it?

  43. says

    We watched this last night, and taped it for re-watching. Yes, it’s a tad superficial, but this is a big planet.

    The birds of paradise doing their disco boogie thing, midway through the first episode, was the point where I said to my wife: “The Intelligent Designer is smoking crack.”

  44. says

    The birds of paradise were awesome. I loved the whole series, swimming monkeys, lions hunting elephants, snow leopards, the lot. Sure, some animals drew the short straw (but, as is said above, they’ve had their own shows in stuff like Life In The Undergrowth), but when you’re watching a polar bear taking on a pack of walruses that nitpick does kind of fade into the background. And you can’t accuse a program of focusing on charismatic megafauna when one episode is dedicated to grass.

    Still, Sigourney Weaver? Lioness approaches elephant – voiceover: “Get away from her you BITCH!”

  45. zzz says

    three comments:

    1) it’s meant to be art rather than science, ie Nature ! Spectacular !

    2) get the HD DVD and enjoy, especially the ocean deep

    3) Why are Horizon and other British science shows being dumbed down ? Because they have their eye on the America $$$ audience and don’t want to scare then off with difficult stuff

  46. Dave Godfrey says

    A fair amount of footage was shot on film, especially the some of the Snow Leopard sequences. In theory anything shot on film could be rescanned and turned into HD without too much trouble. Its only the stuff shot on video that causes problems.

    One of the reasons that Attenborough may have got dropped (aside from the cutting that appears to have happenned according to the comments) is that he doesn’t appear on screen at any point. I can’t see them being able to do that to “The Living Planet”, his 1980’s series covering many of the same topics as “Planet Earth”, or indeed “The Blue Planet”, where he appears on screen in every episode.

  47. LK says

    Actually most of it was shot using HD. It’s the first major BBC documentary to be done almost exclusively in HD (Bleak House was the first drama done in HD for the BBC at the same time as Planet Earth). The slow mo was done using film cameras because the frame rates for HD portable cameras were too slow at the time.

    There was however alot of give and take with quality and format because of the different ways HD is transmitted in the USA and Japan (Discovery and NHK). Part of the contract with Discovery was of their insistence to replace David Attenborough (who although quite famous in most commonwealth countries is virtually unknown in the USA) with a more recognisable voice in Sigorney Weaver. I believe this was a poor choice and I stand by my previous statements that Discovery Channel documentaries are the poorest excuse for the discipline on the planet. The education of children in the US suffers as a result.

  48. LK says

    I’ve also discovered from YouTube comparisons that they really murdered the script with the US narration. While Attenborough is adept at letting the images speak for themselves, Weaver’s script harps on in a new-agey fashion about nature’s wonderment. After watching a few of them, I personally could not continue to watch. Americans have alot to learn about documentaries.

    Anyone thinking of buying the DVDs in the US, should spend the time and find the BBC HD DVDs, and avoid the Discovery Channel’s version with Sigourney Weaver.

  49. Cat of Many Faces says

    I must admit that after a while nature documentaries can get very annoying as it’s always the same large aimals.

    i still remember one of the most interesting things i ever learned about nature was about lichen. finding out about the symbiosis going on in something so ordinary and (lets face it) ugly on rocks in my back yard just flat out amazed me.

    it’s facts like that that make me love biology, not just the majestic moose.

  50. chris larry says

    These comments here and the post seem to be a case of eating our own. Can’t we agree that that Planet Earth is part of the solution not the problem with the societal/science issues we face in the culture wars?!?!

  51. Ben Saunders says

    I watched the first three hours of Planet Earth and really enjoyed them. I agree with the criticisms though, I didn’t like Weaver’s narration, but I appreciate that these films were made.

    Anyway, what I can’t stand about most of the nature documentaries out there (the UK versions are probably better) is their subtle, somewhat spiritual language and anthropomorphic phrasing. When the swimming gazelle gets away from the hyena because it happens upon another meal, the narrator calls it a ‘miracle.’ When animals display seemingly complex social behavior, they love each other. In these films, animals feel, care, plan, and hope.

    I understand that a program like this is aimed towards a general audience and so the pop science is abundant. I love the Discovery channel and I think that they get a lot of people interested in science. But, doesn’t it seem to perpetuate the view that the earth is so unimaginably wonderful and complex, we cannot adequately understand it? That it has this layer of mysticism supernatural beauty? By using subtle, ‘spiritual’ references and describing cute, human-like animals, are they helping us at all?

    Maybe this is just a problem that everyone, even us atheists and science-promoters, falls victim to. In the same way that many ungodly people continue to say “God bless you” out of habit, maybe popular science documentarians describe the chance sparing of a gazelle as a miracle.