“The Earth has immense power, and yet that’s rarely mentioned in our history books. I’m here to change all that.”
The BBC has a reputation of putting out some very high quality documentaries, particularly recently in the high-definition age. Planet Earth became an award winning series lauded all over the globe for its stunning photography and epic tales. Most recently I watched and reviewed their Life series. Once again the series was dominated by startling images, many never before captured on film, all in wonderful high definition. Now I have a chance to visit yet another recent BBC project: How The Earth Changed History.
Immediately, you discover that the focus here is much different from the previous projects. While this series spans the globe just as the others did, the focus here is much more narrow. This isn’t the result of several years and hundreds of crew to create a compelling story. The focus here is geologist Iain Stewart, who serves as both host and narrator for these tales. The series focuses on the four ancient elements of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water and how they have influenced the path of humanity over the ages. Certainly, there are some rather beautiful images in this series. One such involves a crystal cave, only recently discovered. But, for the most part, the images are more functionary than in previous BBC projects. We’re not talking wall-to-wall stellar images.
The episodes can be found on two Blu-ray discs.
“The magic of water is that it’s constantly transforming itself, shifting between guises and from place to place. Our struggle to control it has been behind the rise and fall of some of the greatest civilizations on Earth.”
This episode begins in one of the most unlikely of places when you’re talking about water: The Sahara Desert. Here you bear witness to evidence that suggests this was once a lush environment with a huge river basin. From here the piece examines the water cycle. Our first history lesson brings us to the first agricultural societies of the Fertile Crescent. The next stop is ancient Egypt, which serves as a perfect example of a river society. The piece examines the role that the Nile’s flood cycles had on their survival and their culture. We are then whisked to an underground cave system of fresh water. The largest network of underground water can be found right where I am writing this, in Florida. The episode concludes by looking at some of our modern solutions to water shortages. Fresh water makes up only 3% of the entire planet’s water, yet accounts for the placement of human settlements from ancient times to today.
“It’s an unknown world, hot and extreme. It’s provided raw materials for our conquest of the planet, but at a price. This is the great untold story of human history.”
The first images are among the most spectacular of the series. Covered in a vest of ice, an oxygen mask, and other protective clothing, Stewart ventures into one of the most important geological finds of the last decade. Discovered by a silver mining company, he explores a giant crystal cave. While the crystals themselves are quite common, here they’ve grown to enormous size. It’s like something out of a science fiction film. The equipment is necessary because this cave is so deep in the earth that temperatures are too extreme to support life. Then it’s off to explore the origins of the first known mining operation in human history. It’s a copper mine in Israel. Copper led to bronze, which led to iron, and each stage is explored here. Much of the remainder of the episode deals with fault lines and how civilizations have gravitated toward them in spite of the obvious danger. While they may be known for the volcanoes and earthquakes they provide, it is also the fault line that brings these hidden mineral deposits closer to the surface, allowing them to be discovered and ultimately exploited.
“For thousands of years the wind has shaped the destiny of peoples across the globe. It has built fortunes and brought ruin. Even today, we’re still at the mercy of the wind.”
After a rousing few minutes in a state-of-the-art sailing ship, we once again find ourselves deep in the heart of the Sahara Desert. Here we visit a small village that was once a powerful Mecca. Deep in the bowels of the Al Ahmed Mahmoud Library, Stewart uncovers evidence in such ancient books as the oldest known copy of the Koran, kept in a shoebox of all places, that the same wind that now shapes the immense desert once made a fertile village.
People already know the story of Christopher Columbus. His insistence that the world was round fueled his journey to develop better trade routes by traveling in the opposite direction. He was right about the shape, but a bit off on the size. Instead of India, he discovered two continents, North and South America. But, what is not quite so known is that Columbus also discovered what we call the Trade Winds. He was the first to observe that there were prevailing winds that could be counted on to guide one’s journey. It turns out that old Columbus is also the Father of Globalization.
From here the piece looks at the jet stream and its impact on global climate, including the 1930’s Dust Bowl that helped to define the Great Depression. There’s a segment which shows how winds brought fertile soil to China and took it away from Australia, defining the development of both massive places.
“It’s deadly, yet it’s also the driving force behind human progress. But our dependence on fire has meant that events deep in the earth’s past have changed the course of history.”
This journey begins 400 million years ago. It seems odd, but apparently Earth did not know fire before that time. It wasn’t until the first plants appeared that provided both the fuel and the oxygen to burn that fire showed its face on our planet. The discovery of carbon deposits allowed humans to make hotter fires and melt metal deposits to create tools and weapons. Yes, Rosie, fire does indeed melt steel all the time. The process is called smelting. Check it out. It’s way cool … sort of. By the late 16th century humans began to use coal, and the Industrial Revolution soon followed. Finally, the episode gets to oil, which was used for centuries as a “health” bath before its energy properties were uncovered.
While the series has actually done a pretty good job of avoiding moralizing the message, we do get our first glimpses of Global Warming preaching here. So Rosie can feel a little better after discovering that fire melted steel before 9/11 occurred. There’s something here to learn for everybody.
“But now the relationship between us and the planet is changing. We’re no longer at its mercy. We have now become a major planetary force.”
First we travel to Indonesia and the site of a mud volcano that has devastated a town of over 30,000 people. The cause of the volcano appears to be the result of an errant gas drilling operation which allowed superheated water to mix with the dirt, creating devastating mud eruptions. In one place the mud has solidified up to the roof of a building.
Most of this piece contains the moralizing the rest of the series avoided. There’s plenty of Global Warming talk here. As you might expect, it is both the least informative and least entertaining episode in the series. It appears unnecessary and doesn’t fit the tone of the previous episodes at all. There is even a segment which blames the farmers for the arrival of the 1930’s Dust Bowl conditions which an earlier segment blamed on a shift in the jet stream. It’s a blight on what is otherwise a very strong documentary.
Each episode is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p image is brought to you through an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. While the picture isn’t nearly as stunning as the Life series, there are nevertheless some wonderful details and moments of splendor to be found here. Much of it looks very much like a documentary in the pre-HD days, solid but not extraordinary. Still, the picture can never be described as weak or faltering. Colors are quite natural. There is more grain than I expected to find, particularly in the darker segments. Black levels are really only average for a high-definition presentation. The bit rate is high. There are only 3 episodes at most on a disc, so there is no evidence of compression issues to be found.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is mostly dialog here, and it serves that purpose just fine.
All in High Definition.
Extra Footage: There are three segments where Stewart recalls the experience he had on the Crystal Cave (8:37), walking through the fire (7:47), and paragliding over Iceland (2:36).
There is less actual history here than the title suggests. Still, Stewart is informative, and he does manage to tie these various elements into our general development as a species. There’s certainly stuff here that I didn’t know before, so I have to say there is absolutely an educational aspect to the material. While it might not be as entertaining as the other BBC shows, Stewart is pleasant enough to keep the pace moving. Shows like these appear to be replacing the old standard encyclopedias. It seems it is rather nice to have these snippets of natural history at our arm’s length, except now they don’t live on our bookshelves, but on our home theater shelves. “It’s an amazing development, when you stop to think about it.”