The BBC might still have a reputation with some as a venerable and perhaps stuffy old institution, but when it comes to the art of the documentary series they’re unrivalled. Walking With Dinosaurs and The Planets were both huge successes, appealing to a wide audience thanks to their spectacular visuals and fascinating facts told in the most entertaining of ways. A whole generation of people used to shudder at the merest mention of the word “documentary”, but thanks in no small part to the BBC the humble doco is now blockbuster entertainment that regularly generates spectacular TV ratings and sells like hotcakes on home video.
The clever trick that the BBC have up their collective sleeves to make high-profile, visually rich and technically dazzling documentary series possible is, of course, outside funding. Being rather brilliant at commissioning acclaimed series after acclaimed series is one thing, but somebody’s got to pay for the long, arduous research process, the challenging and complex filming and the first-class post-production. In the case of The Blue Planet, that’s where American cable network Discovery Channel comes into the picture, providing invaluable hard cash to allow the BBC Bristol team to get on with making the stuff that makes you go “ooh”.
The Blue Planet is actually a kind of companion piece to The Planets without ever being intended as such. That earlier series (produced, by the way, by completely different people) showed us in graphic detail what things looked like in the immediate neighbourhood above our heads. The Blue Planet also introduces us to a previously unseen neighbourhood, but this time it’s the one living on, in and particularly underneath the world’s oceans.
You think you’ve seen marine-life docos before, and have therefore seen it all? Think again. Producer Alastair Fothergill and his team take their cameras to a vast array of global locations to illustrate just how amazing this whole marine caper really is. Dry land? Pah, that’s nothing. Here there are creatures that look like they’ve been spawned from the imagination of Clive Barker, translucent except for the bits that glow neon or strobe like a slow-motion undersea rave. They swim or stroll about at incredible depths in complete darkness, cheerfully eating each other and occasionally popping up to the surface for something a bit more nourishing. Meanwhile, in shallower waters, fish partake in a large-scale brawl while literally hundreds of sharks gather around for a meal, a group of stunt dolphins practice a tourist-pleasing aerial-spinning trick when they think no humans are looking, and two million penguins battle to win the world’s-cutest-penguin award in the Antarctic. The camera picks up on a giant iceberg which appears to have been shaped to look just like the Titanic, in a magnificent example of the way nature can be so good at irony.
There’s hundreds more memorable moments here - in fact, there’s so much to see that narrator David Attenborough occasionally seems to be in danger of losing himself completely with the sheer excitement of it all.
The eight episodes in the series have fairly self-explanatory titles, and between them cover a vast array of creatures with some popping up in more than one episode depending on relevance.
1 - The Blue Planet: This first episode is more of a general overview of the scope of the series, attempting to capture the vast scale of what’s about to be covered in the episodes to come and for the most part succeeding admirably.
2 - The Deep: Freaky Barkeresque creature fans, this is the episode for you. Down here, over a kilometre underground, entire ecosystems exist independent of the usually life-giving sun. It’s always dark down here, where creatures exist that are 90% mouth and have the teeth to match, where everything that’s anything glows in some Spielbergian way or another. If you’re looking for the gobsmacking stuff, this is your episode.
3 - Open Ocean: Without any sign of land for hundreds of kilometres, a whole environment of creatures happily lives in the most unforgiving of ocean conditions. Sadly, that means that a lot of the time they have to eat each other, and there’s almost always a bigger fish (unless, of course, you happen to be the biggest fish, in which case you may suffer the humiliation of being eaten by the small ones very, very slowly).
4 - Frozen Seas: It’s rather cold in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and this episode pits the two polar regions head to head against each other in a kind of who’s-colder face-off, which naturally turns into a who’s-got-the-cooler-creatures contest. The Antarctic easily wins, unless you’re one of those steely people who doesn’t find the sight of penguins trying to climb onto an iceberg the best thing ever.
5 - Seasonal Seas: The sun (or lack thereof) might prove to be a hassle for those of us living in coastal cities like Melbourne where we complain when it’s too cold and wet and whinge when it’s too hot and dry. Out there in the ocean, though, the changing seasons are a vital ingredient in the life cycle of the creatures that live in and from the water.
6 - Coral Seas: Colour television was invented to make this possible, and DVD lets you show it off to the sound of your friends going “oooh”. Yes, it’s the episode about coral reefs, which means glistening tropical seas and incredible colours as we venture through what looks like the world’s biggest and best outdoor fish tank but is actually a living thing in itself.
7 - Tidal Seas: The shifting tides of the ocean - created by the gravitational force of the moon, which should make everyone grateful the moon is not exactly the home base of the Big Gravity Fan Club - have a huge effect on the creatures of the seas - as well as on land-bound life. In particular, the tidal marshes provide a feeding ground for a whole range of life.
8 - Coasts: Every continent’s got one, and around the globe the coastal areas are thriving with life - most of which is just visiting rather than setting up a permanent home. It’s on the coast that you’ll find a million seabirds all in the one place at the guillemot version of the Big Day Out.
The BBC has long been a 16:9 broadcaster and this series, like almost all their recent output, is in that format, presented on DVD at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and 16:9 enhanced. The visuals are everything in a series like this, and the quality of them is always good and often quite stunning - particularly the sections shot on digital video as opposed to film (both source formats are used extensively). Note that like all BBC DVDs released in Australia, this local release is made from BBC-supplied masters - it’s identical to the UK version.
The main problem is one that’s often plagued BBC DVDs - the video compression. It’s mostly excellent, to be fair, but there are a few occasions where there simply aren’t enough bits to encode the complexity of what’s on screen - remember, water is the sworn enemy of MPEG video encoding, and there’s a ton of the stuff here. In practice it’s mainly fast-moving water footage that causes problems, mostly in the form of noticeable macro-blocking. Most of this happens in the first episode; encoding quality improves massively from the second episode onwards. Frustratingly, there’s plenty of spare space on both dual-layered discs, which could so easily have been used to increase the encoding bitrate. The extras disc doesn’t suffer from compression problems, probably because it’s been encoded at a notably higher bitrate.
Speaking of dual-layer, only disc 2 has a layer change to negotiate (rather unexpectedly appearing one chapter in to Tidal Seas).
All three discs have an enforced startup delay of 23 seconds, during which time only the eject button works; this is typical of BBC DVDs, and we can only assume they spent a lot of time on their copyright and logo screens and want to make us watch them whether we like it or not.