Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger hears that the Western Hemisphere is nice this time of year.
Four landmark BBC series presenting the definitive portrait of the land, wildlife, and peoples of the western hemisphere and Antarctica.
There aren't many media entities with the ability and desire to pull off a video Atlas as comprehensive as this one. National Geographic comes to mind. Ken Burns could pull it off if that were his thing. But the BBC did it. Synthesizing reams of data from the historical record, archaeological evidence, geological theory, evolution, and modern footage, they have assembled a comprehensive, surprisingly neutral account of the natural history of the world. Designed to be future-proof, the four documentary series assembled here relay the facts as cohesively as possible. (Considering that the sixteen-year-old Land of the Eagle still seems relevant, their approach worked.) The result is as convincing as it is intellectually stimulating.
Facts of the Case
BBC Atlas of the Natural World compiles four previous documentary series into one book-like set of DVDs. Like any good atlas, this one seems to cover everything while skimming over complexities and paradoxes that might shatter the careful story. The four series and their respective episodes are as follows:
Land of the Eagle (1990)
Spirits of the Jaguar (1996)
Wild South America (2000)
Life in the Freezer (1993)
If you're reading this review, chances are good that you've found yourself with an encyclopedia or atlas in your hands. Maybe you were bored one lazy afternoon, or maybe you had to look something up and got distracted by the text and pictures. If someone had asked you what you wanted to do that day, you probably wouldn't have said "I'd like to read about how shifting tectonic plates formed the Caribbean Islands." But there you are anyway, reading and enjoying the history. That's the best frame of mind to be in when you're watching BBC Atlas of the Natural World. Sure, you could be watching X2 or reruns of The Simple Life, but this is better for you.
The set is logically arranged from North to South. This makes organizational sense, and is also a good way for Americans to get into the spirit of things. As a native North Carolinian, I'm particularly well-poised because the story starts with a missing colony on the Outer Banks, and the mysterious CROATOAN carved into a tree. (Well, technically, the set kicks off with spectacular aerial footage featuring a bald eagle.) The BBC has confirmed what I learned in 4th grade, so we're good so far.
The story hits home quickly. Though Land of the Eagle carefully avoids political commentary, its retelling of the bare facts is condemning. We've probably all been guilty of glossing over the "Europeans drove out the red man and made strip malls" saga. Land of the Eagle points out that the "unspoiled" natural bounty of the New World was actually the result of 10,000 years of careful husbandry. Native Americans did controlled burns of underbrush and managed game populations to provide a bounty of resources for man and beast alike. In the four or five centuries since we've been at the helm, Americans have decimated millions of buffalo, razed millions of acres of forest to bare dirt and concrete, and have driven countless species to extinction. We have altered the flow and chemistry of the water. And we did it all in record time, geologically speaking. It is sobering and uncomfortable.
As Land of the Eagle takes you from the East Coast to the West, it reacquaints you with familiar names like Lewis and Clark and familiar places like Yellowstone. In doing so, it provides enough detail in context to gives these familiar stories a new twist. Yellowstone's peculiar geography takes on a spiritual resonance, for example, when set against the superstitions of the Native Americans. When Victorian-era tourists are shown posing in their full dresses and umbrellas, it somehow seems jaunty and sinister at the same time.
Though North-to-South organization is logical, Land of the Eagle is not the best hook to get into the BBC Atlas of the Natural World. The real epiphany comes in Wild South America. The most recent documentary in the set, Wild South America is also the most polished by far. Unlike its full-frame siblings, Wild South America takes advantage of a wide screen. The result is breathtaking.
As energetic strains of South American music pulse delicately through the speakers, "Lost Worlds" opens with an intoxicating flyby of the Andes Mountains. The catchy opening song is reworked many times throughout the episode, setting different moods while keeping you in one unbroken trance. "Lost Worlds" casts South America as a majestic, maverick continent with vast resources—and equally vast voids. Its impossible diversity of flora and fauna is explained with a straightforward (yet gripping) overview of natural history. From camels to Caymans, South America teems with life, and all must contend with extremes of wind, temperature, drought, and flooding.
Wild South America focuses on different regions of South America in the subsequent episodes "Mighty Amazon," "The Great Plains," "The Andes," "Amazon Jungle," and "Penguin Shores." Though none of these has the same sheer power to entrance as "Lost Worlds," each is compelling. By the time this segment wraps, it instills hope for the planet that Land of the Eagle took away.
Between the staid Land of the Eagle and the snazzy Wild South America are Spirits of the Jaguar and Life in the Freezer.
Spirits of the Jaguar is a meld of the two approaches. Like Land of the Eagle, it contains a scrapbook approach of footage, music, photos, and re-enactments. The re-enactments are grittier this time around, showing things like Mayan ritual sacrifices. Spirits of the Jaguar also approaches some of the gloss and mystique of Wild South America, particularly when showing footage of the colorful animals that populate Central America. For example, the vibrations of frog songs on water form a kaleidoscope of motion. The Aztecs and Mayans were fascinating cultures; Spirits of the Jaguar's best moments come from simply revealing the centuries-old temples that still rise from the jungles today.
While Spirits of the Jaguar fits in with the other two documentary series, Life in the Freezer is decidedly different. For one thing, it has a host named David Attenborough. BBC viewers may be familiar with Attenborough's work, as he has been doing nature documentaries for decades. Life in the Freezer isn't bad, but it sticks out like a thumb among fingers because it is the only hosted documentary in the Atlas. There's also a simple truth about Antarctica: it is more interesting to those who are there than to those who are watching it on TV. Antarctica is big, white, and windy. You can show it dozens of ways, but in the end that's what you're left with. There are moving shots of millions of penguins, or millions of krill puddled in a big glob, or millions of penguins underwater eating millions of krill. Life in the Freezer does everything it can with what Antarctica offers, but it was the least rooting of the four series.
There are no extras in the traditional sense, but BBC has included one powerful alternative. Each documentary can be viewed in Enhanced Content Mode, which pops up facts in text boxes (a fancy alternate subtitle). If you're an educator, this mode crams even more science and natural history into the shows.
BBC Atlas of the Natural World is a nice collection of four ambitious documentary series. With almost 18 hours worth of footage and little overlap, chances are you'll be powerfully affected by at least one of the scenes.
Not guilty…now get busy documenting the rest of the world!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Enhanced Content Mode
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