Split into five fairly compelling episodes, ‘Earth: The Biography’ examines our planet’s volcanoes, atmosphere, glaciers, oceans, and other seminal rarities that maintain their authority over modern human civilization. More than a simple history lesson or eye-pleasing jaunt through the fire and ice that shaped the continents, the documentary digs into the ever-evolving forces that thunder below our feet, taking the time to investigate both our dependency on and indifference to the world we inhabit. Just be warned: anyone who refuses to accept the notion that humans have a legitimate impact on the planet should stay away from this one -- the series dips into such preachy waters that the blindfolded foot-stompers among you will most certainly cry foul. However, anyone who enjoys evaluating both sides of an argument, regardless of which position they ultimately take, will find the material presented here far more digestible.
Guiding this tour of Earth’s natural wonders is Dr. Iain Stewart, a passionate, Scottish geologist who’s devoted his life to studying the planet and a television veteran that has appeared in other notable documentaries. To be honest, however, Stewart’s the reason I initially had a hard time adjusting to ‘Earth: The Biography.’ His jarring accent and ear-piercing narration makes him far less inviting and soothing as recent BBC hosts like David Attenborough, Tilda Swinton, or Sudha Bhuchar. I never reached a point where his voice worked for me, but by the second episode I grew accustomed to his delivery and had an easier time sinking into the material itself. Admittedly, I was equally distracted by WETA guru Richard Taylor’s harsh accent on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ bonus material, so maybe it’s just a personal preference.
Questionable narration aside, the actual science and geology of ‘Earth: The Biography’ is fairly captivating (albeit a bit underdeveloped). The world we see every time we get up in the morning is relatively organized and methodical, but the world Stewart introduces is a volatile, untamed beast that’s constantly altering everything around us. The “Volcanoes” episode is full of predictable dangers and upheaval, but “Ice,” “Atmosphere,” and “Oceans” present a frenzied vision of how delicate civilization is compared to the Earth itself. Stewart makes a clear case that our responsibility isn’t to save the planet, but to respect it and thereby save ourselves. I particularly enjoyed the manner in which he criticized global warming enthusiasts for attempting to rescue a planet that will continue to exist whether humanity is a part of its global ecosystem or not. Instead, he suggests our efforts would be better served pursuing the same environmentally-friendly technologies and behaviors, but realizing we’re just temporary residents on something that was here long before us and will continue to be here long after we’re in the ground.
’Earth: The Biography’ really only has one major failing: compared to ‘Planet Earth,’ it’s a yapping Chihuahua that doesn’t offer documentary fans similar breadth, an engaging host, or any real scientific shockers. Taken on its own merits, Stewart’s series accomplished what it set out to do and taught me quite a few things about the natural world. However, I get the impression that the good doctor was only able to brush the surface. Boasting uninspired CG sequences, talky location shoots, and so-so narration, ‘Earth: The Biography’ just doesn’t feel epic enough to stand with ‘Planet Earth,’ ‘Ganges,’ or ‘Galapagos.’
Likewise, ‘Earth: The Biography’ doesn’t look quite as good as other BBC documentaries released on Blu-ray. That’s not to say its 1080i/VC-1 transfer is hindered by any glaring deficiencies, but rather that it simply doesn’t pack the same wallop as its British brethren. As usual, colors look amazing -- lava spews out of volcanoes in a vibrant display of vivid oranges and reds, deserts team with natural-hued rock formations, and the oceans glow with a healthy blue that allows the white ice to pop off the screen. Contrast is solid and comfortable, only undermined by some minor wavering, black crush, and blooming. Detail is satisfactory as well. It doesn’t have the all-encompassing clarity and technical impact of ‘Planet Earth’ or the eye-gouging fine textures of ‘Galapagos,’ but it still offers a fairly clear glimpse into the guts, blood, and skin of our planet.
Which brings me to the ever-present complaint lodged against documentaries: visual consistency. The quality of Stewart’s location shoots varies (particularly when the cameras head underground), archive footage is occasionally pulled from a standard definition source, noise and artifacting become a slight problem in the darkest scenes, and the CG interludes aren’t as sharp as one might expect. Mind you, all of these issues are relatively minor -- none of them even come close to ruining the presentation. However, as each problem compounds with another, ‘Earth: The Biography’ struggles to keep up with the best high-def presentations BBC has delivered to date.
There’s not a lot to say about the standard DTS HD 5.1 surround track (not to be confused with a DTS HD Master Lossless Audio mix) featured on BBC Video’s ‘Earth: The Biography.’ Like most documentaries, narration dominates the soundscape and rests neatly in the center channel. Stewart’s sharp comments are crisp and clean, his on-location discussions don’t suffer from overly distracting environmental sounds or wind noise, and decent low-end LFE support pops up to assist the documentary’s volcanoes, shifting ice shelves, and other natural wonders. The rear speakers have little to offer and an immersive soundfield never quite develops. As a result, there isn’t any convincing depth or three-dimensionality to speak of -- the presentation may be mastered for surround sound, but the results are decidedly similar to a normal television broadcast.
Even so, it’d be a mistake to avoid nabbing the Blu-ray version of ‘Earth: The Biography’ simply because its DTS track isn’t given enough sonic bombast to stand out from the crowd. As documentaries go, ‘Earth: The Biography’ has an above-average audio presentation that isn’t plagued by any technical problems or bothersome issues.
Like its standard DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Earth: The Biography’ doesn’t have any special features.
While ’Earth: The Biography’ may not leave a lasting impression like some of its more substantial BBC brethren, it does a fine job exploring the fascinating and hidden geological face of our planet. Likewise, this new Blu-ray release fails to offer documentary fans a showcase disc, but with its above average video transfer and decent audio presentation, it doesn’t disappoint either. If you already have ‘Planet Earth,’ ‘Galapagos,’ and ‘Ganges’ sitting on your shelf, you’ll find ‘Earth: The Biography’ serves as a nice companion piece.