You might think that there's nothing new to say in natural history; that the origin of life has been examined already in such intricate details that another two-hour investigation would be pointless. That's pretty much what I thought - before watching First Life.
In fact it turns out that new scientific methods and study have evolved themselves, bringing new information and understandings to light. The programme also uses new tech to illustrate its themes - when most of your subjects are fossils, it certainly does help to animate with some snappy visual effects. A sizeable chunk of First Life depends upon using animation to show weird early life forms as they may have appeared, half a billion or so years ago. This helps to make the subject far more lively than if it depended on fossilised rocks and old skeletons (even if the visual effects aren't anything like as `photorealistic' as the makers claim). They don't quite bring fossils to life, but we can see what extinct species may have looked like with their skins on, and how they may have lived, moved, fed and bred.
This programme also benefits from being presented by the world's most accomplished natural historian and, even at 83 years old, Sir David Attenborough does a wonderful job of bringing the past and its quirky, almost alien inhabitants to life. Attenborough never talks down to the viewer, and he's always enthusiastic and engaged with the subject matter. In First Life he also depends very heavily upon the expertise of various palaeontologists and other scientists, and these experts get plenty of air-time to explain their specialist discoveries and themes. Attenborough is the presenter but he does not hog the limelight; the animals of the long distant past are always the core focus of the film.
As you expect with modern documentaries, there's an inordinate amount of globe-trotting and some spectacular filming, from Newfoundland (which shares fossil types with the Charnwood Forest in the UK) to the Australian outback, then to the Rocky Mountains, North Africa and back to Scotland. Most of the travel is genuinely appropriate to the topic, however, and hard to illustrate in other ways. It was really interesting to actually see the sheets of volcanic ash laid down over the sea-bed millions of years ago, preserved as rock today. And there are some surprises, too; using the world's largest X-ray machine in Switzerland to look inside fossilised, pre-historic embryos was delightful.
The programme traces how the first animals evolved (and how some didn't evolve and so got left forever on a dead end of the evolutionary tree). It explains why we are basically symmetrical in shape, and why almost all animals are built around the same layout with nose/eyes at the head, propulsion to the sides, and a feeding tube down the middle. It explains how simple reproduction by division was replaced by sexual reproduction, and then how evolutionary pressure created predators and the whole panoply of wildlife with which the world abounds today.
First Life was originally filmed as a two-hour special, then edited into two 60 minute halves. It's accompanied on this disc by another 60 minute programme, `Attenborough's Journey' which follows the broadcaster as he spent a year filming. It's much more personal than First Life and is about Attenborough himself, his passion for the natural world and his career in programme making. For me it's rather less successful than First Life - documentaries about documentaries have become very popular of late - and I suspect we'll see it being endlessly repeated when Attenborough tributes are required.
So overall I was very pleasantly surprised by First Life. It's new approach to a (very!) old subject which both entertained and educated me. it was a pleasure to watch DA at his best, too.
on 24 November 2010
Whilst woolly mammoth, giant birds, and, most especially, dinosaurs, take centre stage in the TV version of prehistory, our smaller and more vital antecedents on the tree of life are often ignored. This is a huge shame, as the earliest periods of life on our planet contain some of the most fascinating and bizarre creatures ever to have lived. And so the mighty David Attenborough (who else?!) takes us on a journey round the world, from the coast of England to the Burgess shale, to meet our earliest ancestors.
The extraordinary first phase of terrestrial life is described with love and affection, (as you might expect of Attenborough, whose entire career has been a selfless love-letter to the creatures of our world, living and dead), and we meet these creatures face-to-face, as if in a personal encounter. We meet the first fractal organisms, neither plant nor animal. We meet the incredible trilobites, with their solid crystal eyes. And we meet creatures so bizarre they look like nothing alive today, giving us a tantalising glimpse into the directions evolution might have taken.
The CGI is well-done, and (crucially) not intrusive. The fossils - particularly the splendid Trilobites - are hauntingly beautiful and strange. Give this to a child at just the right age, and you'll create a life-long interest in nature and the history of life. My only complaint about this is there are only two episodes.
This is David Attenborough at his best. For all avid followers of his work, of which I am one, he will be sorely missed as the BBC will no longer have use of his services.
By dealing with organisms that no longer exist, the approach is slightly different from the previous programs where David would stand near to an animal whilst providing an explanation of its habits.
To bring the various creatures/organisms to life, extensive use is made of CGI without any the usual flashing visuals & dramatic music that accompanies CGI with American presentations of this nature. Instead it is the usual calm, engaging, evocative voice of David making his point in clear, lucid English.
The other difference is the extensive use of experts to explain various aspects such as the one explaining what she believes is indicative of when sexual reproduction commenced.
David as usual does a Cook's Tour visiting those places where significant fossil finds have been made such as the Burgess Shales in the Rockies Mountains, Mistaken Point in Newfoundland as well as Scotland & Morocco. He then attempts to find show one a living ancestor of that creature.
Commencing with the uni-cellular creatures of which there are no fossil records, he moves to the fractal animals which were part plant, part animal & an evolutionary dead-end, he then proceeds up the chain to the anthropods of which the trilobites are the best known examples.
Finally he arrives at the animals which made the transition from water to land.
All of this is accompanied by excellent non gratuitous CGI, lucid commentary & stunning photography. Just what would expect from a David Attenborough production.
However after viewing this video, it struck me that the starting point of the documentary was predicated on the assumption that uni-cellular creatures already existed & that whilst the evolution of these species was awesome in their own right, the evolution of DNA & its attendant protein factory, the ribosome, was probably an even more amazing feat.
Don't let this extraneous aside detract from the excellence of the production but the fact remains that the production's premise is first life after cells had evolved.
"First life" is a very succesful and extremely interesting document about the recent discoveries of oldest forms of complexe life on our planet, giving a lot of new information and allowing us to see older knowledge in a completely new light.
David Attenborough takes us first to the primal darkness of oceans in Ediacaran, the last geological period of the Precambrian era. Ediacaran lasted from 630 to 542 million years ago - it began when ended the last global glaciation ("Snowball Earth") and it ended with the so-called "Cambrian explosion" (542-540 million years ago), when a very great number of forms of complex life appeared simultaneously in all oceans of the planet.
For a very long time the whole Precambrian era was considered as devoided of complex (multicellular) life, with only microrganisms being present in waters of the planet. It all changed however in 1957, with the discovery of "Charnia" - a complex life form of respectable size (the biggest specimens reaching almost 7 feet!), which without a shadow of doubt lived LONG BEFORE the Cambrian explosion. Once this ground breaking discovery was made, scientists started hunting for other Precambrian fossils and it is now certain, that already 585 million years ago there were many complex life forms living in the primordial ocean - although they were certainly less numerous than life forms appeared during Cambrian explosion.
Although in his programs David Attenborough sticks very close to the hard science, this discovery of incredibly ancient organisms living in extremely distant times seems almost coming from science fiction or fantastic literature. And when considering that "Charnia" was different from anything that lives today to the point that scientists still can not decide if it was an animal or a plant, the whole story takes an almost Lovecraftian aspect: incredibly ancient times, deep dark primordial ocean, a life form seemingly alien to anything that lived later, etc.
Once the Ediacaran period ended, we enter some more familiar ground, with creatures from the Cambrian (542-488 million years ago) being somehow less alien. The Cambrian explosion was probably caused by the appearance of a new, revolutionary tool of survival in the animal world - the eye... Therefore, in principle, lifeforms possessing eyes should be already more familliar to us than their blind, Precambrian ancestors, but still, when we begin to discover in "First life" the secrets of "Anomalocaris", the 3,5 feet long alpha predator of those ancient times, things feel again really like a like a trip to another planet.
The Cambrian was a unique time in the history of life on Earth, as nature seemed to allow thousands of experiments, of which only a few worked well enough to produce descendance. One particularly succesful experiment were the very first vertebrates (a kind of very small "lampreys") - from those primitive, jawless, one inch long creatures, descend all fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and finally mammals, including us, humans...
A thing which impressed me particularly was a completely new vision of trilobites. I used to think that once you saw one trilobite you saw them all. Well, how wrong was I! A more careful look at those passionating creatures leads to the discovery of a whole new universe of living, with trilobites appearing in all sizes (from 0,05 inch to 2,75 feet - and possibly even more!) and in shapes varying from rather banal to the most excentric!
After the description of Cambrian the quality of this documents declines. David Attenborough clearly didn't have much time to continue more in detail into Ordovician and Silurian, therefore those periods are covered rather lightly, with accent being put on the prehistoric sea scorpions. Finally, the program ends with the appearance of first insects on the land, in Devonian. However, this last quarter of "First life" is not as good as the rest - and both sea scorpions and first land insects were better covered in "Walking with monsters" BBC's three parts document.
CONCLUSION: I found this documentary excellent and I am very glad that I have it, but it must be stressed, that this is just an introduction into the matter. If you want to know more about the oldest times in Earth's history, I would advise to read following books:
"Snowball Earth" by Gabrielle Walker
"In the blink of an eye: how vision kick-started the Big Bang of evolution " by Andrew Parker
"Wonderful life: Burgess Shale and the nature of history" by Stephen Jay Gould
"Life on a young planet: the first three billion years of evolution on Earth " by Andrew H. Knoll
Watching and enjoying this yet again, I felt moved to write a review, and add my ha'porth to the chorus of approval this excellent DVD has deservedly garnered. Over the course of two hour long programmes David Attenborough explores what we can learn from some of the very earliest fossil life forms we have so far found. The fascinating finds of the scientists he talks to in the field are presented in a very engaging way, with Attenborough himself drawing it all together into a broader narrative, all delivered in his hallmark globe-trotting style, fully justifying his enthusiastic introduction: this really is a 'fantastic journey'.
Rather endearingly we kick off in the UK and close to Attenborough's childhood home, with the discovery of Charnia Masoni, named for the location and discoverer: Charnwood Forest, Leics., and schoolboy Roger Mason (who was, incidentally, still a pupil at the same school Attenborough himself had attended, when he discovered the fossil whilst rock-climbing with friends). This discovery of fossil evidence of Pre-Cambrian life eventually led to a worldwide explosion of finds, in such places as Mistaken Point (Canada) and the Ediacara hills (Australia). Programme one starts with a brief look at single-celled life, such as the ice-bound 'extremophiles', and some speculation, aided by looking at sponges, at how life became multi-cellular.
Next come such developments as the fractal body plan ('an evolutionary cul-de-sac'), such as Charnia itself had, and the arrival of bilateral symmetry, as found at Ediacara, and with that the development of more complex body plans and, crucially, the ability to move, which spelt the end for the immobile fractal life forms. Attenborough has always clearly relished sex, and here he gets to observe, sagaciously, that 'the arrival of sexual reproduction speeded evolution', allowing genes to be shuffled more rapidly, creating more diversity, and doing so more rapidly.
Some of the most recent steps in our understanding have been made thanks to new technology: thanks to x-ray tomography (as used in the fabulously named Swiss 'synchrotron' facility they visit) we can now not just view the fossilised outsides of ancient life, but the insides as well. In this instance allowing us to see the fossilised innards of creatures inside their eggs! It's astonishing stuff, and testimony to the great and ever-increasing insights that understanding evolution is bringing. With the diversity sex brought, the stage was set for the 'arms race' of predator and prey, adding further dynamism to evolution.
Disc two is dominated - and quite understandably so - by the Arthropods, 'the great pioneers'. We start with the 'Cambrian explosion', Attenborough fulfilling another of his lifelong desires by visiting the amazing Burgess Shale, with its array of hallucinatory soft-bodied life forms. After these more evanescent fauna, so fortunately and almost miraculously preserved in the Burgess Shales, Attenborough's buddy, the very engaging Richard Fortey appears, to discuss the arthropods, chiefly via Fortey's speciality, the trilobites: the fossils of the Moroccan hills are mindblowingly well-preserved, and watching Attenborough and Fortey examine and discuss them is to see two full-grown and mature men, and men of great intellect and experience, as happy as little boys. It's beautiful to see the unalloyed joy that can lie at the root of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
I could go on and on, but I'll leave it there. This is, just like the subject, an astonishingly rich series. My only gripes are, 1) it's too short (had Attenborough made this 10-20 years prior, might he have made a full-on 13 episode 'sledgehammer'?), and 2) the title could be considered slightly misleading: apart from a small portion of disc one this series is chiefly concerned with life within a period 'only' going back about 600 million years. The far longer period dominated by single-celled life, and in particular the dim, distant and foggily obscure point of actual origin - i.e. the truly 'first life' - is hardly touched upon. The closest this series comes to that very obscure point is considering extremophiles during the 'snowball earth' period, and when looking at sponges (and perhaps also stromatolites?).
Fascinating further exploration on themes touched upon here include Fortey's excellent Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, the more contentious Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould, and, for a more hardcore (but less easy/engaging) look at that exact point of life's origin (a point that eludes this brief but wonderful DVDs range), there's Addy Pross' What is Life?: How chemistry becomes biology.
But, for an easygoing, thrilling, entertaining, and nonetheless highly informative point of entry to what has to be one of the most exciting detective stories conceivable, look no further: First Life is great!
on 10 April 2012
This is an incredibly interesting dvd, telling you how they found the fossils and trace fossils that lead to the discovery of the very first organisms and creatures that ever lived.
It tells you when they lived and David Attenborough does it all with that fantastically descriptive tone of his.
Any problems? Just one or two. Firstly, there is no blu ray available on this unless you buy from abroad, despite it being a beeb production, the enterprising souls selling it want 30 odd quid, they can run and jump for me!
Second, it's possibly the shortest ever series, which it could be argued, it would be, as it is only about the very initial stages of life, but what a shame. We nerds would have loved it to go more indepth, describing other species, more about where and how they found the fossils, more about why those fossils were preserved like that and so on. Perhaps even a "what we evolved into" bit...
That's a personal wish though and not for everyone, it just might have "bulked it out" somewhat. Still, don't let you put you off, the DVD is quite remarkably cheap and so enjoyable, it really is.
on 2 January 2013
It's partially the material. Whereas Sir David's previous efforts showed off many extraordinary features of life as we currently know it (complete with often mind-blowing photography), this is life as has long vanished, and that is in turn limited by the reliance on fossils, which only appear in rocks when their subjects are candidates for fossilisation - and fossilisation itself is a rare occurrence, so in a way it's amazing that we have as much as we have. The animals themselves have been dead for rather a long time, so they are reproduced (very effectively) as CGI, with occasional reference to similar living animals. However, to me, it is more material for a textbook rather than a television series, in that it is simply lacking in the visual impact of the real thing.
In a way this programme is humbling, in that it portrays just how much we don't know. How did the first DNA come together? What were the origins of the "simple cell" (every one an amazing conglomeration of interdependent electrochemical complexity)? These are questions without answers and subject only to speculation. It would be interesting to get to other parts of the solar system and see whether there exists there forms of proto-life.
Having said that, Sir David lays out a fascinating story of the rise of life in the sea and its emergence on land, even though everything that works well in water doesn't on land, and this is where this particular story ends. As I said, very interesting, yet to me somehow not as gripping as previous series.
Another factor in this is another fossil, Sir David himself. While clearly still possessing the boundless enthusiasm for his subject, at 80-something he is clearly starting to creak a bit - he is now rather portly and walks with a pronounced limp. However, as the accompanying documentary shows, he is still willing to have a go and not to be carried/driven to venues. The famous delivery is also starting to falter. The problem is that, in the normal Attenborough nature series, the animals are the stars of the show, and Sir David makes sure that they are. Here they can't be, because they no longer exist. Moreover, the stunning landscapes and amazing wildlife photography, which are the hallmarks of the BBC series, are also not possible - and CGI simply doesn't cut it. This means Sir David has to be on camera much more than usual, and to me it doesn't work nearly so well.
P.S. The new Attenborough series on Africa has just started on the BBC, and it throws "First Life" into relief. It has all the classic hallmarks - truly breathtaking images and non-intrusive commentary from Sir David - and very little of him on the screen. And the animals are the stars of the show. Business as usual, I'm pleased to say.
on 15 April 2016
A very interesting and informative story in which Sir David Attenborough goes way way back into the Natural History of our planet to the beginnings of life both from ancient fossils and the comparisons with some creatures we can see today. As usual his narration explains many previously unexplained facts about the First Life on our planet and it all makes for a very interesting and informative DVD. A good buy.
on 25 November 2010
What can I say... another GREAT video by BBC, I really enjoyed it. It is NOT a scientific text of paleontology, but it's a great and easy to follow video of "let's see the things you only studied on black and white tables /fossils in a dusty room".
Now these many creatures are vivid and alive in my imagination and I can't forget them. Very enjoyable.
And Attenborough is great. He speaks slowly, something a foreigner like me really appreciates: one can follow each word.
After the old 1986 or 1989 (!) video on early life, this one was really needed, with modern techinques for reconstructing the creatures and new updated information.
...And seeing alive trilobites moving in the sea is a wonderful dream.
on 5 May 2014
David Attenborough and his narration of all manner of natural history topics is legendary and totally justified: "a great British treasure". This addition that explains the early development of life is fascinating and a really good grounding. Indeed students of biology and geology would greatly benefit from watching this two episode series. The work is nonetheless less spectacular than many others that David Attenborough has narrated in more recent years, and is perhaps a bit "drier". Nonetheless, really good stuff!