The Blue Planet* is very probably the greatest wildlife documentary series ever made, and may well keep this title for many years to come. It took the BBC upwards of five years to make, and it isn't hard to see why; they wanted to make sure that every single shot used in the programme was breathtakingly beautiful, and this they have achieved.
The barrage of stunning imagery is complemented by the narration of David Attenborough, wildlife-presenting legend, and by a fittingly aquatic and luscious score by composer George Fenton. The voiceover is engaging and informative, but to some extent it takes a back seat to the visuals - a necessity, since what we see on the screen is so arresting that it would be hard to devote enough attention to the words to absorb much more information than we are given.
The series consists of eight episodes of fifty minutes each. Apart from the first, which is a general introduction, each episode focuses on a different kind of ocean habitat; inside of each we find widely varying examples of ecosystems of that type, and a dizzying range of different ocean-living organisms inhabiting them.
- Episode one, The Blue Planet, opens the series with a broad overview of the oceans and the things that live in them. We are taken from the deepest ocean depths to the shallows and back via the frozen seas of the poles, the coral reefs of the tropics and everything in between. The show is a taster for the rest of the series more than anything else, giving us teasing glimpses of many of the themes that will be taken up at greater length later on.
- Episode two, The Deep, plunges us into the dark and little-understood deeps of the oceans, where creatures that seem more mouth than fish prowl, luring their half-blind prey towards them with eerily glowing nodules. Many of the animals we are introduced to have never been caught on film before.
- Episode three takes us out to the Open Ocean - which are relatively barren as oceans go, the sea's nearest equivalent of the desert, but still populated by a remarkable range of marine life including many of its most voracious predators and such spectacular sights as the sperm whale and the blue whale.
- Episode four, Frozen Seas, concentrates on the marine life dwelling on and underneath the ice of the poles - from the walruses, narwhals and polar bears of the Arctic to the penguins, killer whales and ice fish of the Antarctic.
- Episode five regards the Seasonal Seas - the effects of the changing seasons on the various inhabitants of the oceans in the relatively temperate zones.
- Episode six is devoted to the Coral Seas which house so much of the ocean's biodiversity, telling the story of their slow growth and eventual destruction and introducing us to the dazzling array of creatures that inhabit them on the way.
- Episode seven, Tidal Seas, is about the many effects of the tides on ocean life, and about the rich ecosystems of the tidal flats and skerries.
- Episode eight brings us to the Coasts, those interfaces between land and sea where so many sea birds make their homes alongside such semi-aquatic species as seals and sea turtles.
The DVD of the series comes with two extra documentaries - Making Waves, about the making of the series, which was originally shown in short chunks after each episode; and Deep Trouble, about the threats posed to the marine ecology. It also features interviews with the production team, a five-minute 'theatrical short' named Blue, and a photo gallery.
The book of the series is a hefty 25x28cm, with 384 pages and gorgeous stills on almost every one - 400 full-colour photographs in all, which includes a few archive shots as well as plenty of material taken straight from the documentary and the odd shot which has never been seen before. Written by the series' producers Andrew Byatt, Alastair Fothergill and Martha Holmes, the book goes into much more detail about the species and habitats being illustrated than they could fit into the series, and also includes a good deal of general natural history of the oceans. As in the series, the sheer visual beauty of the book sometimes makes it hard to concentrate on the words - but get past this and you will find some extremely informative and compelling science writing.
The Blue Planet is a BBC/Discovery Channel co-production. It first aired in the UK from September 12, 2001 to October 31, 2001.
*The series was originally shown as Blue Planet, without the The, which is why this isn't in a separate The Blue Planet node, but the DVD and the book are both titled The Blue Planet and refer to the series by that name as well.
The Blue Planet web site is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/blueplanet/