The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection on Blu-ray
BBC's HD nature documentaries have earned an excellent reputation for their beautiful shots and locations, if not for their occasional buying into the global warming hoax. This latest compilation pack includes series that were released previously, but they're all worth owning and if you've missed any of them before, this is a nice chance to get the whole shebang together.
The centerpiece of the set is Planet Earth, the epic story of our planet and the life that it supports. It's a fantastic series, shot with gorgeous care and attention, and that makes it even better in HD.
BBC's spectacular documentary series takes up six discs in this incarnation - one more than the original DVD release - and there isn't stinker among the first four.
David Attenborough narrates this gloriously shot, 11 part series that takes us from pole to pole, from mountain top to ocean deep, giving us marvelous looks at our planet and its animal inhabitants – spectacular footage that will take your breath away.
The first episode sets the scene, brilliantly, with the rest focusing on one particular aspect of our biosphere, for example "Mountains," "Fresh Water," "Caves," "Deserts," "Ice Worlds" and more.
Each episode made us wonder just how much they paid the crews they sent to the far corners of the world; this was a tough gig! If you don't believe it, you'll be shown via a "Planet Earth Diaries" "show within a show" mini-documentarie that follows each episode - and there are four new ones in this expanded package, with looks at some great "Planet Earth" moments, a neat look at the beautiful snow leopard, and more.
The ones that accompany the episodes take one segment from the show and let us ride with the crew as they work to capture it on high definition video.
The scale of the show is mindboggling, whether it's showing you huge crystal formations inside a gigantic U.S. cavern or literally millions of critters migrating – or running to escape hunters. You'll see mating rituals never before seen on TV (not even on "Friends"), lions hunting – and taking – an elephant much larger than they, and much, much more.
There's some animal "brutality" here that may be disturbing, but it's an honest look at the "circle of life" that is our planet, though they do manage to ignore the human race for the most part. And that said, they don't beat us over the head with eco-whacko stuff during the show itself.
They save that a piece subtitled "The Future" that lays it on thick right from the first shot.
The spectacular photography cannot be mentioned enough, and the musical score accompanying the images and narration is as good as any – ominous during hunts, light during humorous moments, etc.
Video quality is top notch. We originally watched the series in 480p on DVD and, later, upconverted to 1080p for even more spectacular results. It's best in its native 1080i, though, and a lot of the shots are so beautiful you could print them out and hang them on your wall as posters. Naturally, the image is in the 16x9 aspect ratio of HDTV, which fills today's wide screen televisions perfectcly.
Audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and it's also very good. The multi-channel recorded sounds immerse you in the natural world, making you feel a real part of the adventure. Attenborough's narration could be a little more "front and center" (okay, that's where it is – the front center channel – but he could be a tad louder), but overall it's a very satisfying soundtrack.
With Wild China, indeed with all of these presentations (though these two are the best) the BBC has done it again. Wild China is a six part nature series that gives us a wonderful look at the natural beauty of China.
And there's plenty of natural beauty to be seen, not just the wild beasts on which they focus, but the landscapes themselves. China is, indeed, a very beautiful country.
The set is spread over two Blu-ray discs, with three episodes on each. The series is presented in the BBC's typical 1080i, which sounds a bit chintzy compared with Blu-ray's normal 1080p offerings, and in what appears to be lossy 5.1 sound, which is a bit chintzy in a BD world of Dolby TrueHD, dts HD and LPCM. But overall, we don't think you'll notice any shortcomings on the discs, which look and sound great anyway.
Of course we'll never know for sure unless they release 1080p/HD audio versions...
The first episode is called “Heart of the Dragon,” and introduces us to the series, the country, and its billion-plus people (though we don't see a lot of Red army types about). We see mostly "peasants", the hard working enslaved people undoubtedly more concerned with feeding themselves and their families than with expanding Communist ideology.
"Heart" starts by showing us some incredible rice paddies they say are some of the oldest known man-made structures on Earth. It sets the tone, and we were hooked. It looks almost as if there are miles upon miles of these things, terraced along mountainsides, and they're not only functional, they're beautiful. Ah, but since they aren't natural, shouldn't the enviro-types be over there protesting?
The six episodes give us fairly in depth looks at four extremely different landscape areas, ignoring almost completely the peoples' slave status (which, to be fair, would be as inappropriate here as a rant against George W. Bush would be in a documentary about the effect of hurricanes on low lying areas. Oh, wait. That happens, doesn't it?).
Anyway, to say yet again, the animals and the landscapes (from the high himalayas and nearly as high deserts, to rain forests and mountains that look like the alien egg chamber from "Alien") are magnificent and complex, put into their overall perspective of their locale via what appear to be satellite-recorded maps.
We get to see animals that live nowhere else, architecture ancient and beautiful enough to bring tears to your eyes, and people whose difficult lives are worn on their faces via years of weathering and struggle.
It's a remarkable and compelling series, another tour de force from the BBC.
The Blu-rays force you to skip through what seem like interminable previews and logos before you get to the meat (this is nothing new for the BBC, though). The picture, as mentioned, is presented only in 1080i, but the images are clean and clear and colorful - helping to bring the subject matter to wonderful life. While we consider ourselves video snobs, we had no trouble living with this video presentation.
Audio is merely Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, too, and while we're hooked on the "high res" lossless audio formats you can bet with Blu-ray (there's that "snob" thing again!), in fact the audio quality here is just fine. There are no spaceships, explosions, car chases, and the like, so your home theater isn't going to get a huge workout. But that isn't necessary with every disc (we can't believe we said that!).
You also get a 27-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (“Hunting Dragons”) It’s a pretty interesting peek at the making of the series, giving some insight into how difficult it is to shoot such scenes as Wild China contains. There are also traditional Mandarin subtitles.
Ganges and Galapagos feature the same kind of gorgeous videography as Planet Earth and Wild China, obviously focusing on different areas. Ganges is the better of the two, showing us the story of the great Indian river from its mysterious source(s) high in what are basically the same Himalayas (but the other side) we see in Wild China. If you like mountain footage, you'll love the first episode.
Subsequent episodes follow the river closer to its huge delta, focusing on the wildlife and the human life that lives in the shadow of its life-giving water. There are tigers, otters, peacocks, and wild herds of elephants competing with humans for real estate - though again the BBC doesn't beat us over the head with the eco stuff.
There's only one disc here, but it's full of neat stuff, beautiful images and fascinating insight. There are also some behind the scenes stuff, deleted scenes and the narration is also available in Bengali and Hindi.
Galapagos is a fascinating and gorgeous look at the famous archipelago off the west coast of South America. It gives us an excellent overview of the volcanic islands themselves and how they're formed, how they're moving, and even how they'll die.
Naturally, it's the weird and wonderful animals, along with Charles Darwin's theories, that make the Galapagos famous, and they're on display here in glorious high def for all of us to see.
The three episode series comes on one BD disc, in 1080i, and the video quality is up to the BBC's high standards - it's gorgeous.
What isn't as good is the audio - which is only presented in stereo. It sounds okay, but we pined for a lossless, surround track. Still, what we have here is okay. The weakest part is Tilda Swinton's rather lifeless narration, as well as the assumptions that Darwin was correct in his theories which, regardless of what the establishment elite would have you think, are still merely theories. They may be correct, but only time and new theories will tell.
Obviously, Planet Earth is the real gem in this boxed set, but all of these series are well worth your time and it comes recommended highly, warts and all.
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.