By nature, humans beings are egotistical, narcissistic and self-interested. We are mammals that on occasion forget we are also merely players in the animal kingdom. Upsetting as this truth may be, it's partly the reason for our foolish notion of superiority and dominance over the planet. As a species, we exist as if detached from the natural conditions and resources upon which we truly depend on.
In this new BBC series, 'How the Earth Changed History' (originally and more fittingly titled 'How Earth Made Us' in the UK), geologist and professor Iain Stewart challenges all of this by exploring geological phenomena that has incidentally shaped human history. With each episode, he travels to various parts of the world and provides viewers glimpses of Earth's greatest ecological wonders. Displaying beautiful, breath-taking and astonishing photography of these marvels, he shows our close and often intimate relationship with the unpredictable changes and adjustments of Mother Nature. Concentrating on the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), he reveals the growth and evolution of human civilization as intrinsically joined, even necessitated, by our natural planet.
To crudely paraphrase the series host: As empires come and go, this is the stuff we never read in history books. But we should.
Essentially using a combination of geology, natural history and anthropology, Stewart details the interrelationship of environmental occurrences which participate in the development of ancient societies and the beginning of humankind's mastery to exploit them for its survival. We would never know it by just looking at them in sheer admiration, but the gigantic selenite crystals of the Naica Mines in Mexico, called Cave of Crystals, were created by mineral-rich ground water situated right above a fault line where an underground magma chamber released heat for 500,000 years. For Stewart, this is a perfect starting point in explaining the attraction of early cultures populating areas where earthquakes are more likely to happen. Short answer: It's due to the immense amounts of naturally occurring minerals and deposits.
In the remainder of the "Deep Earth" episode, Stewart explores other deep caverns around the world and describes how we've taken advantage of the deposits and resources offered by such regions. In "Water," empires have reigned for hundreds of years in territories where the flow of water could be controlled, including the harshest environs where underground fresh water proved a valuable living source. The "Wind" episode seemed at first straightforward with sailing ships paving the way for trade business and globalization, but learning of Christopher Columbus's most valuable contribution to human history is worthwhile.
For "Fire," there's little doubt that our control of fire is a significant moment in our evolution, eventually leading to the Bronze Age and the Industrial Revolution, but it's interesting to think the one major ingredient of this element —carbon — can also be the demise of our species and planet.
In the final episode entitled "The Human Planet," Stewart turns the tables on his viewers to look at the indelible impact we've made on Earth. It's clear the host is not looking to spark another debate on the controversies of global warming. Rather, he is investigating from a purely empirical approach our intimate relationship with the planet as a double-edged sword. Our continual methods to control and master the unpredictable forces of nature have inadvertently created other — often disastrous — adversities. For all the good our drive to use and conquer Earth's resources can brin about, there is an unmistakable negative result to coincide with it. With our manipulation of the elements, humans have proven themselves a force that is also leaving a permanent impression.
While watching the series, I can understand a viewer's possible reluctance and dislike of the show as Stewart does tend to gloss over some important but complex geological science in order to quickly arrive at the point. There is a great deal of information being shared here — and it comes from one who clearly knows his subject — and it can suffer a bit by a constrained timeframe. (My wife even mentioned needing a second viewing to fully grasp everything.) In the end, however, Stewart's goal is to demonstrate the awesome and powerful forces that shape Earth's habitat have also served as the driving influence behind the evolution of human civilization. And to this day, those same geological forces continue to affect the survival and well-being of the planet's dominant species: us.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video delivers the five-part series 'How the Earth Changed History' in a two-disc package and a keepcase that holds each disc on opposing panels. Both discs (one has three episodes; the second has two and special features) are region free, and curiously, they come with different skippable trailers at startup. The first BD50 disc shows a promo for BBC Earth and other nature documentaries on Blu-ray ('Wild Pacific,' 'Ganges,' 'Galapagos,' 'Wild China,' and 'Yellowstone'), while the second BD25 disc carries a trailer for 'Life.' At the main menu, viewers have a choice to watch a single episode or click on "Play All" while full motion clips play in the background.
Given the content of this entertaining documentary series, the picture quality of 'How the Earth Changed History' would be expectedly amazing if not at least brilliantly stunning. Unfortunately, this AVC MPEG-4 encode in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio is rather inconsistent and simply doesn't compare to the likes of Attenborough's 'Life' and 'Planet Earth' on Blu-ray.
The freshly-minted transfer, which comes in at a rate of 1080i/60, is for the most part clean and pleasing to the eye, with many scenes looking incredibly sharp and detailed. Colors often pop with impressive boldness, and black levels are richly rendered. The image can display astounding clarity and wonderful depth in those same sequences, but they're regularly countered by a series of artifacts during other parts of the presentation. Likely related to the HD cameras used, contrast runs very hot is several areas, blowing out whites and causing severe clipping. Banding is a nagging and distracting issue throughout. The picture is also frequented by poor resolution, a bit of noise, and some instances of light aliasing.
Clearly, the series comes with a few problems, but overall, the Blu-ray is passable for a very good nature program.
Being a documentary, there really is only so much one can expected from 'How the Earth Changed History,' but the accompanying DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack does a generally fine job of complementing the video. Of course, much of the attention is centered around Stewart's enthusiasm, and his narration is understandable and clear for the most part. A few times when our host is surrounded by lots of commotion, however, his informative speeches can be somewhat difficult to make-out. But I'm fairly sure that has more to do with a combination of the particular environment and his Scottish accent than a fault in the codec. The LFE-channel provides a startlingly hefty low-end for certain scenes, and the front-heavy mix displays a strong balance in separation. The soundstage is welcoming, with a warm and detailed dynamic range, creating an attractive and stable presence. Some minor ambient effects spread into the rear speakers from time to time, making this lossless track quite appealing.
Warner releases 'How the Earth Changed History' with a chintzy assortment of supplements that fails to add any value to the package. Presented in standard definition and broken into three segments ("The Crystal Caves," "Walking Through Fire," and "Paragliding"), the lone featurette is nothing more than a 19-minute interview with Stewart about shooting in different environments. While not all that exciting to watch, some of the background info can be interesting.
'How the Earth Change History' is a five-part documentary series from the creators of 'Earth: The Biography.' Hosted by geologist and professor Iain Stewart, each episode infuses geology, natural history, and anthropology as part of its attempt to explain the rise and fall of ancestral societies. Essentially, the series is an exploration of our intrinsically intimate relationship with Earth's natural forces and how they in turn serve as the impetus to the evolution of human civilization. Although all around passable, the two-disc Blu-ray set fails to make much of an impression in terms of picture quality, but scores higher in the audio department. Unfortunately, the package suffers from a meager collection of bonus features. Overall, the series is recommended for fans of BBC documentaries on natural history.