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An enthralling new perspective on a (very) old subject
on 6 November 2010
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.