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Natural Educational Dramedy - another great job by the BBC
on January 8, 2010
Over the past two decades, the BBC Natural History Unit has become a prolific documentary factory of the highest order, with ever-improving skills and increasing dedication. Some of their productions are relatively minor, but this is one of their flagships, and you can tell this because they use David Attenborough as the narrator (who is still in top form).
The theme for this 10-part series is the challenges of life and how various animals and plants solve them. This includes unusual and extreme food gathering techniques, hunting strategies, surprising evolutionary weapons and defenses, adaptations to harsh environments, mating rituals, and the lengths they go to in order to pick the right breeding partners.
Each episode covers this vast topic in specific areas: The first episode is an overview and top-20 hit parade of the upcoming episodes. Each of the ensuing episodes then cover a branch of the animal kingdom, including reptiles, insects, mammals, plants, birds, fish, with additional specialized episodes covering hunting, sea-life and primates.
This will obviously overlap with many of their previous releases, especially The Trials of Life, Attenborough's series covering the animal kingdom, and even The Living Planet and Planet Earth. But their approach here is interestingly well-chosen: Previously covered footage and educational information is usually summarized, before continuing with the more obscure, the upgraded, and the exciting new details.
For example, The Private Life of Plants is obviously much more comprehensive and educational, but this show's episode on plants features things like a 60-second time-lapse shot of growing life in the woodlands that took two years to create, new information on the strange shape of the Dragon's Blood tree, and more footage on the Venus Flytrap, this time its dual use of insects complete with tiny sound recordings.
Now, I have a pet peeve about repetition. This show's annoyingly useless overview episode, and the fact that much of the information and footage lacks freshness and has been covered before, all tempt me to rate this show lower. But the combination of nicely summarized educational information, a good theme and structure, new amazing cinematography that uses the latest skills and technology, and some new exciting footage that I don't think I have ever seen before, compels me to give this top marks. This is a much better release than Planet Earth.
In addition, while many nature documentaries have elements of drama and laughs, this show has more than usual, and you will find yourself frequently touched, horrified or very amused by all of the amazing behaviour on screen, all obviously very real.
The BBC also continue their recent trend that devotes the last 10 minutes of each episode to a 'making of' featurette. These are usually just as interesting as the footage and you can always stop watching if you aren't interested, so I suppose I can't complain. But keep in mind that if you subtract the overview episode and diary scenes, you are actually getting 450 minutes instead of 600.
In summary: If you are relatively new to BBC documentaries, this will amaze you to no end AND provide a nice informative summary of life on earth. If you are a seasoned watcher of Attenborough's series, you can still enjoy this series as a combination of educational summary, a provider of new, complementary and upgraded information with some of the most beautiful, rare and amazing footage ever recorded, and even as a highly entertaining natural drama and comedy, or 'nature dramedy', if I may coin a phrase.
However, if you place emphasis on educational and more comprehensive information, Attenborough's previous Life series still reign supreme and will probably remain unequalled for a long, long time.