The Human Planet

The Human Planet on Blu-ray disc

BBC's natural history documentaries are generally fantasic home theater experiences, with superb photography that takes us places we've never been and shows us things we've never seen.

This latest one, The Human Planet, continues that tradition, this time looking not at the flora and fauna that surround us, but at us – the Human race, the most successful (arguably, since cockroaches and a bunch of other critters seem to do quite well as well, for better or for worse) and ubiquitous creature on the planet.

You might expect it to be a hatchet job on homo sapien, given the BBC's rampant liberal bent, but for the most part it isn't. Instead, as it should be (hey, we aren't perfect, but we're a work in progress and we've done great things), it's more a celebration of the human spirit and human ingenuity.

Heck, one of its first segments shows a tribe hunting and killing a whale, probably one of the most politically incorrect things humans can do these days next to being white male Christians. And while they did put in the caveat that they do it to eat (not, presumably, just to exploit Person Nature's bounty as others apparently do), they don't beat us over the head with it.

Not until the last episode, anyway, which deals with our cities.

It's a pretty compelling series, but it really only scratches the surface, giving us quick looks at two or three different examples of humanity in each of its eight episodes. Those quick looks are pretty darn neat, though, and we came away from the series proud of and amazed at what our fellow Men have accomplished.

And in typical BBC nature documentary tradition, we visit all corners of the world (well, most of them, anyway), from the arctic to the high deserts, from water-dwellers to real tree huggers. The photography is gorgeous, the audio is excellent and the narration by John Hurt is first rate.

Here's a quick outline of the eight episodes:

Oceans: Into the Blue

Seafaring people are showcased here, and some are pretty unbelievable. The highlight is divers in the Philippines area who can – and do, regularly – dive up to 40 meters using only a rusty old air compressor and crummy plastic hoses to keep them alive. Watching these guys risk their lives and their bodies (the bends appears to be a regular affliction here) is just one of the many examples in this series of the tenacity of the human race.

Deserts: Life in the Furnace

Some may find this episode a tad dry, and so do the participants! Here we accompany people who trudge across the sand for weeks to find the nearest well on the way to market. Others wait all year for the rainy season so that they can collect enough water to keep them alive the rest of the year. There's a fantastic fish catching celebration here that's truly wondrous.

Arctic: Life in the Deep Freeze

The Beeb gives us the cold, hard facts of life about life in the Arctic for some people. Here, we meet some Inuit people as they build igloos, and hunt for everything from sharks to Narwhal – and get a really cool look at a place where the tide retreats so far to sea that the locals have enough time (about half an hour) to chop through the ice to the dry seabed to grab as many mussels as they can before the tide returns.

Jungles: People of the Trees

If you ever had – or wanted to have – a treehouse, or if you loved the one in Disney's "The Swiss Family Robinson," this is the episode for you! Treemendous!

Mountains: Life in Thin Air

We hang our hats in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, at about 4000 feet elevation. And when people visit us they notice the thinness of the air. But people, even people in big cities, live at much higher elevations than that, and this episode introduces us to some. Besides a look at sulphur miners who work near a volcanic lake that produces poisonous gases, we also peek at a more "advanced" Swiss society where the challenge is to control avalanches in the Alps - making this a "dynamite" episode as well.

Grasslands: The Roots of Power

Some African bushmen hunt big game and burn whole areas of grassland so the animals have no cover, while also ensuring fresh new growth of grassland afterward. Manmade grasslands are also discussed here and the series talks about how farms and agricultural land not only redraws our own natural landscape, but how it's endangering wild grasslands as well. Enviro-alert!

Rivers: Friend and Foe

After the many stories of people who live in under or undeveloped parts of the world, it was a nice change to move onto a Ottawa, Canada to see how a group of men continuously have to break up the ice that freezes on the river there, lest they have a huge flooding problem. We also get to see the powerful rivers like the Ganges which swallow whole villages as it eats away at its banks, a testament once again to the indomitable human spirit as people are forced to rebuild.

Cities: Surviving the Urban Jungle

This is the episode that doesn't really celebrate human achievement but bitches about it. Still, some of the stories shown here recount the fight between humans and flora/fauna, trying to keep it out of our cities. For example, some humans face a constant struggle with Maqaque monkeys, while we witness exterminators battle rats in Manhattan and, in London, watch people who are on the watch for bedbugs.

The series unfolds over three Blu-ray discs, and is presented in 1080i, like most of the BBC stuff we've seen.  The picture looks terrific, with excellent detail and color – it's as compelling as the rest of these nature documentaries are.

Audio, presented in dts-HD Master Audio is also very good, with some decent use of the surround channels as well – something we didn't really expect. The music doesn't overpower the rest of the sound and the dialogue is generally clear and clean.

Extras include a "Behind the Lens" featurette with each episode, a "making of" where they show you just how they accomplished their stunning photography. It's interesting stuff. There's also "Fez", an 11 minute ditty that looks at shooting at the Moroccan tannery, and "Volcano", which lauds the work of the crew  who shot the sulphur gas mining sequence.

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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