Always one for quality “edutainment,” the BBC has been on a hot streak since its Planet Earth series and the recent release of Galapagos on Blu-ray Disc. With that as a backdrop, the five-disc special edition DVD of The Blue Planet, a BBC production about life in the ocean, is bound to pique viewers’ interest. In some respects this is warranted, as The Blue Planet comes “from the producers of Planet Earth” and includes more than 390 minutes of underwater footage. But one small fact gets in the way of Blue Planet’s stardom: it was filmed and produced well before Planet Earth ever hit the airwaves.
The Blue Planet’s years-old production leads to two issues with this five-disc Special Edition set, and although neither is a deal killer, each puts a damper on the set’s overall quality. Spread over five DVDs, The Blue Planet: Special Edition includes eight 48-minute episodes that document life in and around the various ocean environs: Frozen Seas, Ocean World, Open Ocean, The Deep, Seasonal Seas, Coral Seas, Tidal Seas and Coasts. The fifth disc includes footage never before aired: Amazon Abyss, Dive to Shark Volcano, Between the Tides and Antarctica. Without question these discs provide a comprehensive account of ocean life, but the inconsistency between those accounts is part of this DVD set’s downfall.
The Blue Planet first aired on the BBC in 2001, when high-definition cameras were the exception rather than the norm. As such, most of the episodes on these discs have a slight broadcast grain to them, which is only accentuated in scenes where the cameramen push the zoom lenses and test the cameras’ capabilities. However, several episodes show fantastic video quality, particularly The Deep and Coral Seas, both of which were filmed with high-definition video cameras. Although it’s easy to think “a little bit is better than nothing,” seeing such discrepancies between episodes is actually disappointing. It’s not just a matter of the video transfer, either, as all the discs feature MPEG2 video. Instead, it’s clearly a matter of the source video having different resolutions from episode to episode, which was simply the nature of the beast when these episodes were being filmed.
Because it predates both Planet Earth and Galapagos, The Blue Planet has one additional strike against it: it lacks the same level of polish. Whereas Planet Earth and Galapagos have a natural, almost narrative flow to them, The Blue Planet has a more shotgun-like approach to its assembly, with the producers cramming as much information and as many shots into each episode as possible. This leads to a massive amount of footage, but it doesn’t convey the same deliberate pacing as the BBC’s other features, both of which feel much less forced. Again, when The Blue Planet episodes first aired, its footage was so incredible and its information so new that this lack of structure and pacing was fine. In 2007, it’s not.
That’s not to say these videos aren’t interesting. The Blue Planet is in fact still a rather compelling piece of television. However, that’s really its best medium, because as a DVD set, The Blue Planet shows its age as a made-for-TV program. The bonus features (two 10-minute making-of features and one interview per disc) are included, but they’re sparse. The audio is fully digital in 48 kHz, but it’s only presented in the two front channels. The video is in high-definition, but only in a couple of episodes. And the footage itself, while dramatic, is no longer “new” for consumers who have now seen similar shots in March of the Penguins, Shark Week or other mainstream programs.
The Blue Planet makes for good “edutainment,” and it’s certainly not a bad thing to be “from the producers of Planet Earth.” However, it’s important to realize that while The Blue Planet as a DVD set is newer than Planet Earth, the Special Edition’s production, cinematography and footage are all several years older. And in a world where wildlife programming is becoming ever more sophisticated and polished, “old age” is definitely something to consider when making your next documentary-like purchase.
- Score: 7
— Jonas Allen