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Customer Review

on 8 June 2010
On the plus side, there is, as usual from the BBC Natural History Unit, some great photography here which makes the series a joy to watch. However, I feel "Life", and indeed other recent series such as Planet Earth : Complete BBC Series (5 Disc Box Set) [2006] [DVD], are let down by a number of points.

The most important of these is that the recent series often seem to be out of touch with the field of zoological research that enhances our understanding of the natural world. Whilst some interesting facts are sometimes mentioned, giving the viewer the impression that the series is well-researched, often the interpretations of animal behaviour are at odds with the scientific evidence. For example, it is confidently stated that young capuchin monkeys learn to crack palm nuts by watching and imitating adults, whereas it is likely that social influences on the development of this behaviour are more subtle. At other times, the significance of what is being reported is not conveyed. For example, take the footage of meerkats of helper adults teaching young to deal with scorpions: the finding of an exciting and recent study which constitutes some of the strongest evidence for teaching in a nonhuman species. However, this fact is not conveyed, partially due to the fact that the BBC NHU are often making confident statements about adults teaching young in all sorts of species for which there is little or no evidence. To my understanding, one of the main messages from the meerkats case is that behaviour can evolve for a teaching function, without being reliant on the ability to understand the state of the pupil's ignorance, but this too is not explained.

To me, a good natural history program is not one that "dumbs down" its content by ignoring all that "complicated" science, but one that uses innovative footage to make such ideas accessible to the viewer. In this respect I feel the series produced by Martha Holmes and Alastair Fothergill compare unfavourably with the superb work of John Downer, who produced programs like Lifesense: Our Lives Through Animal Eyes and Predators [DVD] [2000], which I think used the medium of film very effectively to convey our scientific understanding of animals' lives. I would go so far as to suggest that even David Attenborough's work has shown a downward trend in terms of the scientific information it conveys, when one compares, say, Life On Earth [DVD] [1979], with his more recent programs. Now the emphasis seems to be increasingly on impressing the viewer with how clever the NHU is to get the footage they do, which is fair enough, but not enough on its own.

Another area where I think "Life" specifically fails, is the script (and program structure) which I assume was written by Martha Holmes, and flows badly compared to David Attenborough's own efforts. Another niggle is how everything is shown in slow-mo. Yes, it is very impressive that we have the technology to see fast behaviour in smooth slow motion, but if we don't get to see things at normal speed too we cannot appreciate, say, how fast a chameleon can use its projectile tongue.

So in summary, whilst I greatly enjoy watching "Life", I feel the BBC should re-think its strategy when writing these big-budget series, and they could be so much more.
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