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Planet Earth
narrator: David Attenborough
director: Alastair Fothergill

660 minutes (E) 2006
2Entertain BBC DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Co-produced by the BBC and the Discovery Channel, Planet Earth is a wildlife programme in the great tradition of BBC wildlife programmes, right down to narration by David 'awed whisper' Attenborough. The series is comprised of an initial 11 episodes, each looking at a different environment, and then three more traditional documentaries about the threats to these environments. This huge five DVD set includes all 14 episodes along with Planet Earth Diaries which show how the episodes were filmed.

Clearly, there is a sense in which programmes such as Planet Earth are unimpeachable. Visually stunning even on my five-year-old cathode ray TV and cheap DVD player, the sheer awesome beauty of this series is completely beyond reproach. If you watch this series, you will shake your head and marvel at how beautiful our planet and the creatures on it really are. The series also includes a number of truly fantastic moments such as a snow leopard chasing a goat down a sheer rock face, a pride of lions hunting elephants and a polar bear fighting a walrus. You will not find a more beautifully shot, painstakingly researched, lovingly made and worthy piece of wildlife television than Planet Earth.

The series is also augmented by the Planet Earth Diaries, which include some beautifully funny moments such as the encounter between a dryly sarcastic British cameraman and a flamboyant French inventor and a cameraman who goes slowly insane while waiting weeks and weeks for a bird of paradise to do its mating display. Clearly, this is great and worthy TV and it is entirely deserving of your money, though they are putting out an HD-DVD version next year. Environmentalists with no sense of shame and huge 78-inch planet-raping plasma screens might therefore want to wait until 2007. However, for all the quality and worthiness on display, I could not help but feel under-whelmed by this DVD boxset.

Firstly, there is a distinct sense of déjà vu about the bulk of this series. While there are a number of spectacular standout moments, a lot of these animals have been filmed before and once you've seen one bird of paradise or shark bumping up against a cameraman, it's difficult to get excited about seeing them again. This was less of a problem for series such as Blue Planet, which really did show new environments such as the continental shelf. However, for anyone who, like me, grew up watching the BBC's wildlife coverage it is easy for the different animals and habitats to melt into each other. Indeed, this is particularly problematic if you watch more than one episode at a time.

Secondly, when you get right down to it, the first 11 episodes of Planet Earth really don't offer anything more than some pretty pictures to look at. The attempt to cover each environment's geographical and geological characteristics as well as the ecological goes some way to addressing this problem, but the series is still one part analysis to five parts hushed awe and this makes for an incredibly passive viewing experience.

Indeed, Planet Earth suffers from a real lack of intellectual substance, which is frustrating given how expensive, well researched and carefully made the bulk of the programme is. The final three episodes of the series are supposedly more analytical and are meant to address the problems facing the environments featured in the first 11 episodes. However, rather than make the most of the programme's high profile to report on the important challenges facing the conservation movement, the programme makers simply gloss over them and then spend ages giving an airing to old chestnuts such as shrinking rainforests and icecaps. This means that important issues ignored by the mainstream media such as the differences of approach within conservationism and the tension between the first world's desire for conservation and the third world's desire for economic development get squashed together in one episode, with little time devoted to each of them. In fact, Planet Earth adds little more to the debates surrounding environmentalism than some pretty pictures. This is a real missed opportunity.

Planet Earth is an intensely worthy and beautifully filmed series that I am sure will win prizes and sell by the bucket-load. However, it also does little to dispel the idea that conservationism is simply an issue of saving the little animals and in this, it is no different to any of the other worthy and beautifully made wildlife programmes that the BBC has produced over the last 30 years. Planet Earth's failure to complement its stunning visuals with equally challenging substance makes little more than beautiful fluff.
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