Intensely geo and highly graphic, also pretty great and bordering on the momentous, "Great Moments With National Geographic" celebrates the 10 years that the National Geographic Society's specials have appeared on public television. The 90-minute special, which will take two hours of air time (with built-in pledge breaks) on Channel 26 at 8 tonight, is self-congratulatory to be sure, but this is a case where self-congratulation is in order and overpraise a very remote possibility.
The specials have been year in and year out among television's most gratifyingly reliable sources of efficacious edification and simple amazement. Tonight's retrospective takes viewers down the Colorado, the Volga, the Thames and the Yukon, and up the human bloodstream. Springboks prance, geckos prey, tigers nurse and whales bask. And in a scene from the first of the PBS Geographic specials, 1975's "The Incredible Machine," a young woman, deaf from birth, weeps at hearing, for the first time in her life, the sound of her own voice, amplified into her head through a newly developed electronic implant.
It's strictly from Wowsville.
Naturally there are requisite shots of bugs mating -- always hard to avoid in nature shows. But the Geographic specials have really revolutionized naturalist documentaries. With the David Attenborough programs and the super "Nova" series, the Geographic specials have helped make PBS the closest thing in the living room to a window on the planet.
They have consistently been among the most popular programs on public TV as well, a fact baldly mentioned more than once by host Hal Holbrook on tonight's special. Occasionally the huff and puff gets to such a level that the special looks more suitable for viewing at a Chevron stockholders' meeting (Chevron underwrites the series) than on the air. It is mentioned, for instance, that the 1982 Geographic special "The Sharks" was "PBS's highest-rated program of all time," a fact of dubious importance to the viewing audience. We all know PBS plays the ratings game, but one expects that at least it will play it less openly than the commercial networks do.
A viewer watching tonight's special will be entreated repeatedly to send in or pledge money so that such programming can be continued. Some may resent the impression that they are being asked to fork over loot for programs that do, after all, serve as public relations instruments for Chevron. They're not in this because they love the little fishies. The measurable level of mercantilism on public television does threaten to become intolerable.
Ah, but then Holbrook disappears and it's back to the animals. Most of the footage seen tonight is from previous programs, but most of it does anything but suffer from repetition. It's shocking again to see the Australian woman in the shark-proof suit trying to persuade a greedy shark to let go of her arm without removing it. He swallows her steel glove before relenting and swimming off to some other feast. And it's inspiring again to see Jane Goodall among the wild chimpanzees, and mourning the death of a gorilla named Digit, killed by poachers for the mere $20 his head and hands would bring them.
New footage includes scenes of perhaps the best of the wildlife photographer teams contributing to the series, David and Carol Hughes, as they attempt to photograph African lions at night and talk about their craft, which in their hands becomes an art. Although not the highest rated, the 1981 special "Etosha, Place of Dry Water" remains the most artful of the Geographic programs, while the more blatantly crowd-pleasing "Save the Panda" is certainly among the most watchable.
Among the narrators of the specials over the years, all duly credited, are Jason Robards, Richard Basehart, E.G. Marshall and Alexander Scourby. They have helped make the specials something to hear as well as something to see.
A long time ago -- no, not quite a million years B.C. -- somebody invented television. The discovery is actually blamed on, or credited to, a few different people. Suppose at the decisive moment they had plugged the thing in and, through a Rod Serlingish interference, were able to tune in TV programming of several decades hence. And suppose the programming they tuned in was, oh, "Hollywood Wives." What do you want to bet they would have scrapped the whole invention on the grounds that the world needs this like a hole in the head?
On the other hand, suppose they tuned in a National Geographic Society special. And they saw the turtle dove snatched from the water by the marauding turtles. Or the great whales cautiously approaching the camera lens. Or the golden mole burrowing through the sand to ambush the legless lizard. Or even the eerie, graceful beauty of a kill by a lion raiding a zebra colony. They wouldn't have junked television then. They would have said, "Let's run this sucker up the flagpole and see who salutes."
We salute the National Geographic Society Specials as they take time out tonight to salute themselves.