August 25, 2009

Maya in Planet Earth

I've been watching the BBC series Planet Earth on Netflix. Here's the story:

Planet EarthPlanet Earth is a 2006 television series produced by the BBC Natural History Unit. Four years in the making, it was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and also the first to be filmed in high definition. The series was co-produced by the Discovery Channel and NHK in association with CBC, and was described by its makers as "the definitive look at the diversity of our planet."

The series comprises eleven episodes, each of which features a global overview of a different habitat on Earth. At the end of each fifty-minute episode, a ten-minute featurette takes a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of filming the series.
After the first three episodes, I would've said Planet Earth was a typical nature documentary: very good but not great. A narrative suitable for children...lots of "circle of life" emphasis on charismatic megafauna (polar bears, African hunting dogs, snow leopards, pandas, elephants)...plenty of cuddly baby animals doing cute and funny things.

But with the second three episodes, I think they kicked things up a notch. Maybe it's the subject matter, but these episodes are almost consistently spectacular. Some highlights:

  • Caves:  Humans parachuting into a cave shaft as deep as the Empire State Building is tall; a mountain of guano covered with cockroaches; underwater caves lit in luminous blues and greens.

  • Deserts:  Saguaro cactus forests; desert fox kits playing at night; male ibex dueling with their horns.

  • Ice Worlds:  Time-lapse photography of the Aurora Australis; skuas chasing away caribou; exhausted polar bear trying to kill larger walruses.

  • People on Planet Earth

    The first three episodes show nothing manmade except a small helicopter in one mountain shot. But starting with Caves, Planet Earth seems more willing to acknowledge the presence of humans. Perhaps it's the fact that you can't grasp the size of underground caverns without tiny persons in the pictures.

    In the Diaries portion of Deserts, we meet the indigenous Mongolians who led the film crew to the few remaining wild Bactrian camels. More to the point, the Caves episode tells us how the Maya were unique among civilizations. They had no rivers, so they got their water from cenotes--huge well-like reservoirs fed by the underground system of water-filled caverns.

    The episode even shows a Maya pyramid--by far the largest human artifact seen on the series. In short, Caves gives us the first and--so far--only example of how humans interact with and depend on their environment.

    I wasn't going to recommend Planet Earth, but now I will. You should check it out, especially if you have children. Renew your appreciation of the wonders of nature.

    For more on the subject, see Inuit in Arctic Tale and Native Documentaries and News.

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