Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story incorrectly mentioned Discovery's series "Life" as a 10-part series. It's an 11-part series.

TV preview of 'Life' on Discovery

By Tom Shales
Sunday, March 21, 2010

How sad that Marshall McLuhan didn't live to see high-definition television. The brilliant Canadian theorist famously and immortally declared, "The medium is the message," and HDTV brings that thought to vibrant and scintillating life. The medium is capable of such extraordinary and breathtaking pictures that even old messages are new again.

So it is that one side effect of the HD revolution has been the gratifying and edifying return of the nature documentary -- films about the hugely varied forms of life that eat, sleep, stalk, mate, fight, thrive, suffer and struggle on our dear and embattled old Earth. "Life," the new documentary from the BBC and the Discovery Channel, brings many of these creatures to the fore in fabulous clarity and with pupil-popping visual eloquence.

It's eminently essential TV, nearly as riveting as the mystery implicit in its title, and a worthy descendant of "Planet Earth," the first masterpiece of the HD age -- and the big television event of 2007.

"Life," which airs in 11 conjoined installments of two hours each, Sunday nights at 8 from March 21 through April 18, doesn't fully measure up to its illustriously illustrated predecessor. The scope seems less grand, the structure less effortless and the tilt more toward science than aesthetics. And darned if domestic tinkering by the Discovery crowd didn't impose a burden similar to the one that marred "Planet": the original and authoritative narration by David Attenborough has been replaced with a slightly dumbed-down Americanization by her majesty, Oprah Winfrey.

This is hardly to say that Winfrey is anything but intelligent, but her credentials as a narrator of documentaries are not quite in order, and her tone too often makes her sound like Auntie Oprey, storyteller to the kiddies. She's neither better nor worse at the job than Sigourney Weaver, the estimable actress who was miscast as narrator the last time.

Those who want to feel more enlightened than pampered will be able to purchase the Attenborough-narrated British original (configured somewhat differently) on Blu-ray or regular DVD as soon as the TV run is over.

The visuals, however, are what really count, and they remain untouched in all their heroically photographed glory -- best appreciated in high-def and on a large screen. Discovery made a few episodes available for preview in the Blu-ray format, and the difference between watching those on a 60-inch Sony and the others on a standard PC monitor really was more than just appreciable. It was -- let's see, what is the word? Oh yeah: AWESOME.

As with "Planet Earth," "Life" was shot in HD, after all -- digital from inception to presentation -- and it represents the dovetailing of other technical advances in filmmaking, the result being a gallery of images that range from startling to goofy, many of them simply not photographable until now. It took a special, teeny-weeny, newly developed HD camera, for instance, to capture the escape of a pebble toad from a predatory tarantula (aren't they all?) on a towering Venezuelan mesa in the chapter "Reptiles and Amphibians."

No spoiler alert seems necessary when revealing that toady-boy escapes -- and ingeniously, by rolling into a ball and hurtling off the peak. Soon the wee amphibian, no larger than a postage stamp and no heavier than a paper clip, Winfrey tells us, is lollygagging on a leaf or doing chin-ups, despite the absence of a chin, on a low-hanging twig.

Capturing the whys

Separate but equal chapters on mammals, primates, insects, fish, birds and other beasties foster a new appreciation for nature's often amazing, sometimes whimsical, occasionally quixotic diversity. The images ask the great abiding question that haunts and informs the series: Why?

Why should a "Jesus Christ Lizard" be able to skitter up to 100 feet on water, not in it, and thereby foil a foe? Why must a mother octopus deep in the Pacific starve to death as the finale to a six-month vigil of guarding her newborns? Why do 10 million oversize bats of the Congo flock to a swamp in Zambia at the same time every year, accomplishing little more than gorging themselves on 6,000 tons of fruit? What are they, nuts?

The simple prosaic all-purpose answer has to do, of course, with survival. All the animals live by the three-word commandment "Don't get eaten," and yet there's always some species hanging around with an appetite specifically for them. But the real "why" goes much deeper; it has to do with the stupendous yet seemingly unnecessary variety of creatures that exist, even allowing for the fact that species are perpetually becoming extinct. Why should there be so many kinds of, for one example, chameleons, all of them having in common that they can change color but otherwise in tiny or major ways the same?

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