The two-disc set places understandable emphasis on more recent (and therefore more technically impressive) programs, beginning on disc 1 with "Attenborough in Paradise," a 1996 segment of The Natural World series, in which Attenborough travels into the deep jungles of New Guinea to witness the magnificent birds of paradise. The sights and sounds of these glorious creatures is something few people can experience in the wild, so this program should be considered a treasure of exceptional wildlife filmmaking. In the equally extraordinary 1971 program "A Blank on the Map," Attenborough and his tenacious film crew travel on foot, with Australian cartographer/explorer Laurie Bragg, into an unmapped mountain region of central New Guinea, culminating in an astonishing encounter with Biami villagers who had never before interacted with white explorers from the civilized world. (Attenborough's philosophy regarding the delicacy of such encounters should be considered an essential lesson for all humankind.) In the 2000 program "The Lost Gods of Easter Island," Attenborough explores the history of a strange, elongated wooden figure he purchased at auction some 10 years earlier. His curiosity takes him (and us) backwards in time to the 18th-century exploration of Easter Island, where an understanding of ancient Polynesian beliefs reveals the identity, purpose, and symbolic significance of the carved artifact that prompted Attenborough's inquisitive adventure.
Disc 2 begins with a 2000 segment of the Natural World series titled "Bowerbirds: The Art of Seduction," and it's one of the most entertaining programs of Attenborough's career. In the Australian rain forests and the jungles of New Guinea, Attenborough studies the entire family of Bowerbirds, whose remarkably meticulous sculptures, structures, and decorations represent the only example in nature (outside of humankind) of creatures that attract mates through the creation of beautiful works of art. In "The Song of the Earth" (also from 2000), Attenborough investigates the history and purpose of musical communication in the natural world, studying humpback whale song, bird song, and human singing in an effort to demonstrate how man-made music is quite likely to be rooted in evolutionary behaviors of survival, territorial defense and sexual attraction. In the 2002 special "Life on Air," Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin hosts a wonderful tribute to Attenborough's career as a naturalist and BBC programming director responsible for much of the BBC's finest TV productions, including the seminal series Civilization and The Ascent of Man. Full of humor and adventure, this memorable hour will surely stand as the best-ever appreciation of Attenborough's life and work, with a veritable treasure of interviews and archival film clips, frequently poking good-natured fun at Attenborough's oft-imitated style of on-screen presentation.
Finally, in "The Amber Time Machine" (a 1994 segment of The Natural World), Attenborough uses another personal artifact--a piece of ancient amber given to him by a young girl at the age of 12--to inspire an in-depth study of amber's unique preservation, in exacting detail, of insects, tree-leaves, and even lizards from tens of millions of years in the prehistoric past. The tantalizing fiction of Jurassic Park is summarily debunked by scientific experts (conclusion: ancient DNA from amber is too fragmented to re-create any extinct species through genetic engineering), but the exploratory potential of amber remains, as Attenborough characteristically engages his own curiosity to turn his treasured heirloom into a tiny world of surprising revelations. Through all seven of these marvelous programs, it's easy to see why Attenborough has retained his childlike sense of wonder: His delight in the natural world is quite literally the life force that keeps him going where few have ever been, sharing the wide, wonderful world he sees with the infectious enthusiasm of someone for whom every day brings a new opportunity for exploration or adventure, no matter how modest or grand. --Jeff Shannon