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Blu-ray Review: The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection

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Coming to Blu-ray this Tuesday, March 27th, is The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection. The set includes the full, six-disc Special Edition of the amazing documentary series Planet Earth. The collection includes single discs of Galapagos and Ganges, as well as the two-disc Wild China. It’s 10 discs total, with a lot of nature packed in. It was previously released as an eight-disc set, but has been re-released, now that the Special Edition of Planet Earth is available.

This is not to be confused with the non-HD BBC Natural History Collection, also coming out on Tuesday. That set also includes the Planet Earth Special Edition, but not on Blu-ray. The other features are different as well.

The highlight of The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection is, of course, Planet Earth. This award-winning, highly popular, 11-part series has surely paid for many future productions, and inspired tons of follow up. If you do not yet own Planet Earth on Blu-ray, that alone is motive enough to purchase this collection.

Each episode of Planet Earth examines a specific biome, except the first one, “Pole to Pole,” which mostly sets things up. Mountains, caves, plains, deserts, frozen tundra, jungles, forests, fresh water, and the oceans are explored in rich detail, really giving viewers a look at their world as never before, with a focus on the animals the dwell in each.

Planet Earth spends 50 minutes in each episode, then there is an additional 10-minute featurette subtitled “Planet Earth Diaries,” which looks at the challenges in making such a series.

First broadcast in the UK during 2006, Discovery Channel carried a version in the U.S. in 2007 with Sigourney Weaver (Avatar) narrating in place of famed naturalist David Attenborough. For the DVD, of course, Attenborough is in full force, displaying much more gravitas than Weaver ever managed. It’s fine to use an actor, but sometimes utilizing an expert in the field is just a much better fit. Planet Earth is one of those cases.

Planet Earth features many “firsts” that no other series had managed to do before that. Bactrian camels are seen eating snow, a piranha feeding frenzy is caught in action, canine hunts are captured from the air, and there is even a glimpse of the extremely rare oceanic whitetip shark. These should easily be enough motive for any nature lover to own this set. It is also the first such series filmed in HD.

Some of the features in the Special Edition of Planet Earth can be found in earlier versions of the DVD sets, while others are only available in recent releases. Any version labeled “Special Edition” should have all of these.

Audio commentary is included for “Pole to Pole,” “Mountains, “Caves,” “Great Plains,” and “Shallow Seas,” each with a different person doing the talking. A featurette called “Great Planet Earth Moments” is exactly what the title implies. Disc five boasts “Planet Earth: The Future,” which is a three part series about conservation. Each part is an hour, and discusses how to save the environments depicted in Planet Earth. Sure, the concept is a little preachy. But after having just witnessed the wonders this rock has to offer, who is going to complain about efforts to preserve such amazing things? It’s the perfect time to argue the message, with the ideal audience already in place.

The final disc has three new specials. “Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth” delves into this particular strain of feline with gusto. “Secrets of the Maya Underworld” spills the beans on some lesser known items about the ancient civilization. “Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert” looks at a culture that may not dwell in buildings, but is pretty advanced for the animal kingdom. There is also a sneak peek of Frozen Planet, a series currently airing on Discovery Channel in the U.S.

Galapagos looks at the Galapagos Islands. Once called The Enchanted Islands, the Galapagos happen to be located right where four different ocean currents collide. Some of the islands are sinking, some are rising. New animals are being created, while others are going extinct. Full of active volcanoes, lava fields, sandy beaches, and cacti-filled deserts, the Galapagos is a rare and unique setting in which to film a special.

Galapagos looks at a large selection of animal life. In fact, the islands take their name from the tortoises that are abundant there. Also making their home in this island chain are swimming iguanas, diving boobies, surfing seal lions, and dancing albatrosses. The wild life is entertaining and fascinating, giving viewers a peek at a lush, full world that few will get a chance to visit.

Filmed mostly in high definition, Galapagos also incorporates satellite images to cover every aspect of the land, air, and sea. The narration is provided by Tilda Swinton.

Wild China, narrated by Bernard Hill, is five hours of exploration in this previously isolated country. Traveling into one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, Wild China spends some time on the native people, while also looking at the various environments that make up the area. From the Himalaya Mountains, to the Tibetan plateau, through waterfalls in forests, tropical islands, and sub-Arctic temperatures, there is quite a varying makeup of China’s natural wonders.

Because of the huge differences between climates, there is a vast array of animals, too. It’s interesting to see how each species is suited to their best habitat, and how some of them interact with the people who have encroached upon their homes. The Chinese have been around for a very long time, and a number of the residents have found harmony with their natural surroundings, a concept foreign to many Americans.

Special features for Wild China include a ‘Making Of’ and subtitles, which are available in Traditional Mandarin.

Ganges also touches the Himalayas, and then goes west from there. This river is one of the world’s most important, running through India, and providing life for countless animals and people. Many Indians consider it sacred, and it’s no wonder, given the vital role it plays for life in this country.

The Ganges is teeming with animals, from tigers, to wild elephants, to peacocks, to monkeys, to river dolphins, to crocodiles. It winds through small villages and large cities. It meets swamps and plains. Not especially repeating the other features in this collection, a whole other range of varied life is present here, too.

The narration is performed by Sudha Bhuchar. It can be listened to in English, Hindi, or Bengali, which is neat, though the latter two will be no more than a novelty for the vast majority of American buyers. There are deleted scenes, and a Behind the Scenes extra.

It is impossible to give a short critique of the picture and sound quality that will encompass this set in full. Many different cameras were used, mostly high definition ones, but even within that subset, picture clarity varies. Sometimes bands of color are on the screen. Sometimes blacks are not as rich as they might be. The same holds true for sound, where it is often presented in a nice, surround format, while in other places, it’s only stereo.

However, in handing out an overall rating on picture and sound quality, The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection ranks high. Buying it on Blu-ray is a must, because that’s where the clearest presentation can be found. Not every scene will be perfect, but many will leave viewers stunned with the amount of visual and auditory detail captured. The makers of these films are experts, and have learned how to best satisfy the masses. This is a stunning set that should definitely be experienced.

The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection, is on sale this Tuesday, March 27th.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com