Three years in the making, involving 1.5 million miles of travel and featuring some of the most beautiful, breathtaking and ambitious photography then seen on television, Life on Earth was the first natural history blockbuster. It redefined TV by showing that an epic, serious wildlife documentary could be a massive success. As such, it remains a true television landmark and paved the way for Attenborough's The Living Planet and further entries in what became known as his "Life" series.
On the DVD: Life on Earth is presented complete in this DVD box set, with a total running time of 715 minutes (13 x 55 minutes). --Gary S Dalkin
The series offers a broad overview of the whole history of life, beginning with the very earliest cells and leading right up to the appearance of man, using footage of various living plants and animals from around the world to illustrate each major episode in the story. For anyone with an interest in nature, and who would like a good introduction to evolutionary biology that is both stunning and superbly explained, you can do no better than this incredible series.
It is true, as many reviewers have pointed out, that the content of this DVD shows some signs of age. This is inevitable when you remember that it is separated from us by 25 years of filming technology and scientific knowledge. Most noticeable to me is that the colour print is not as rich and vivid as a contemporary film, but then again the clarity of the pictures remains remarkably good with only a few short sequences seriously falling below par when compared with a recent film such as Life of Birds. For example, there are some underwater shots in one of the episodes that can't really hold a candle to the crystal clear material that we're treated to in the Blue Planet. The onwards march of scientific research means that, very occassionally, some of the information in the films might be considered out of date, but this is rare. Finally, there were no computer graphics to speak of 25 years ago and some of the animated sequences that are used in particular to illustrate features of ancient, long extinct lifeforms do look very dated. If the series were to be remade today then it would be augmented with much more sophisticated reconstructions.
However, when all of this is said and done, the two essential elements of this series still never fail to impress. These are the presentation of David Attenborough - always clear, authoritative and compelling - and, of course, the wildlife photography itself.
It is first and foremost to David Attenborough and the BBC that we owe our thanks for the fact that most British people's impression of the natural world about them includes many of the creatures and environments with which we are familiar today. If all we were fed was the kind of cutesy baby animals and crocodile baiting fare of the Disney variety then the effect that this might have had on environmental awareness and charitable giving to green organisations can only be guessed at. And besides, given that the spectacle and drama of the best wildlife films is often far better than most of what you see on TV and down the cinema, we would also have lost a great source of entertainment. Even if this kind of thing were all that the licence fee was spent on, it would still be worth every penny.
1) "The Infinite Variety" looks back as far as we can possibly go into the fossil record to the earliest single-celled life forms and the explosion of variety once life really got going in the world's oceans.
2) "Building Bodies" focuses on the evolution of animals with segmented bodies (crabs, lobsters, shrimps etc) and shells (scallops, clams etc) and those brave adventurers who eventually left their shells (slugs, squids, octopus etc).
3) "The First Forests" shows how first plant-life and then animal life found its way out of the seas and onto the land and how they solved the problems of supporting themselves and transferring sex cells out of the water.
4) "The Swarming Hordes" sounds like insects (or arthropods in general) and that's what this episode covers. They were a huge success on land and what they lacked in physical size they made up for in numbers - especially the ants and termites.
5) "Conquest of the Waters" is about the development of the back-boned fish that brought about a whole new wave of adaptation to warm and cold habitats, shallow and deep regions, fresh as well as salt water. And it generated some spectacular predators and ways of evading them.
6) "The Invasion of the Land" -- that should be the second invasion of the land. This time it's our ancestors, the back-boned fish, who clamber ashore. Evolution gradually provided them with all the right bits to crawl and breath and successfully reproduce.
7) "Victors of the Dry Land" follows the progress of evolution from the early amphibians to the dry-skinned reptiles who could mate and breed away from water, laying hard-shelled eggs. They gave rise to the dinosaurs and even after the disappearance of those big fellas, the reptiles are still doing quite well.
8) "Lords of the Air" is about birds: how scales evolved into feathers, providing insulation as well as a means of flight - not to mention the opportunity for male birds to show off with spectacular displays of their extravagant plumage and fabulous colours.
9) "The Rise of the Mammals" looks at the small furry, shrew-like creatures that arose while the dinosaurs where still dominating the planet. These humble little animals really came into their own when the dinosaurs became extinct, evolving into all the mammalian forms we know today, including us.
10) "Theme and Variation" considers the relatedness of animals to their ancestral line, for example the bats, the whales and dolphins, the marsupials, the ant-eaters, the primates etc.
11) "The Hunters and the Hunted" examines what happened when climate changed and forests shrank. Animals adapted to life on the open plains. Herds of grazers were stalked by carnivores, 'bloody in tooth and claw'.
12) "Life in the Trees" traces the progress of the small animals with dextrous little hands and forward looking eyes, that took to life in the trees. They evolved into lemurs, monkeys and apes. At some point, some of them came down and found they could make a good living on the ground.
13) "The Compulsive Communicators" is about us. Our ancestors came down from the trees, found their dextrous hands and forward looking eyes jolly useful for making a go of ground-level existence as well. Curiosity, sociability and communication abilities provided all sorts of advantages and led us to what we are today.
And finally, there's a special feature: "Wild Track with Tony Soper". David Attenborough is interviewed by Tony Soper about the making of "Life on Earth".
I watched the Life on Earth series on the television years ago and it made a great impression on me. And now I've watched it again on DVD over the course of a fortnight and enjoyed it just as much as the first time. Yes, it's true that filming technology was less sophisticated when this was made, but it was ground-breaking in its time and David Attenborough's style and presentation is unbeatable. This is still excellent.
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