It’s been a while since I watched television with any constancy, but I’ve nevertheless been well-aware of the recent outcry about the decline of Discovery Channel, as represented by it kicking off its annual staple, Shark Week, with a completely fabricated documentary about the possible survival of the long-extinct shark Megalodon.
Speculative documentaries are not a new thing, but this was arguably the first time Discovery had aired such a work that was clearly designed to lie to its audience.
I grew up with the old school National Geographic/BBC style documentary where you watched the natural world and listened to a calm voice taking you through parts of life and the world new to you. It certainly characterized my first Shark Week (or Shark Bowl ‘92 as it was called back then) and the pleasant, low-budget programs about Canadian wildlife I used to start my days with as a schoolboy.
In more recent years, television documentaries began to emphasize an element of spectacle and a more forceful, frenetic presentation style. That in itself isn’t a bad thing. However goofy or over-the-top, Mythbusters, for example, is still about bringing science to the people. But it’s like diarrhea, it could just mean you ate something too rich, or it could mean you have amoebic dysentery, you have to investigate further to find out.
The decay of educational television is something I’ve been observing since I was 12. When I was a kid, TLC showed programs like Beakman’s World, PaleoWorld, Body Atlas and Archaeology. The History Channel, likewise, aired such things as War and Civilization.
My first warning sign was when TLC started airing an anomalous number of shows about nights in the Emergency Room – this was in the late 90s when the drama series ER was in vogue. Then shows like A Baby Story and home improvement programs started to creep in as well. Now, TLC’s flagship product is the voyeuristic and vapid Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, a title that makes me feel sick even typing it out.
The History Channel, meanwhile, has gone for the over-the-top presentation in shows like Dogfights and Greatest Tank Battles, which do at least redeem themselves by A) actually concerning themselves with history and information, B) remembering that countries other than the USA have permission to win famous battles in World War II and C) including firsthand interviews with real veterans from both sides. But they’ve sunk badly since they’re now best known for the irresponsible spewage and inexcusable hairstyling of shows like Ancient Aliens.
Despite its own good quality, Discovery’s start of darkness began with Mythbusters because suddenly every show had to be like it, except with just the superficial elements. This affected the History Channel and others as well. Discovery Channel also had I Shouldn’t Be Alive, Canada’s Worst Driver and semi-reality shows about gold-panning and piloting in the arctic which at best upheld the letter but not the spirit of their mandate. However with Shark Week and Animal Planet’s Mermaid show they’ve completely abandoned any pretense of integrity.
Anyway, there’s not much I can say about this that hasn’t been said already, many times and better. So rather than continue to rant on and on, I’d like to raise a positive flag instead and list my top 10 favourites of the classic style of documentaries that are easily available through YouTube and your local library system. Some are old, some are new, but then again it shows that this trend is not dead and worth upholding.
10. Walking with… Series
Justly famous, its first instalment, Walking with Dinosaurs, is what you’d get if Weta Workshop made shows like this. A tour of the Mesozoic Era, it uses puppetry, animatronics and CGI to effectively and imaginatively bring Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures to life and tell their stories. Originally narrated by Kenneth Branagh, the American version with Avery Brooks is equally enthralling. The other two main series, Walking with Beasts (about the age of Mammals) and Walking with Monsters (about the life before the Dinosaurs) are good but not as good. I don’t like the use of the term ‘Monsters’ for one thing and the speculations about ancient life start to seem increasingly arbitrary and slapdash. Various spinoffs like the Ballad of Big Al also exist. The series is already becoming dated, as these things do (none of the theropods have feathers, for instance) and its determination to cover large areas of time means you tend to learn broad or vague facts about any one time or creature, but it’s a great refresher for a paleontology fan or a great introduction to the subject.
9. Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking
Written and presented by famous physicist Stephen Hawking, most of the narration is actually read by his proxy, actor Benedict Cumberbatch. In four parts, Hawking takes viewers on a tour of the Universe. He speculates on the nature of space and time and whether time travel would be possible, and whether there are aliens out there and what they would be like. Finally, he muses on the concept of God and what the evidence says about the idea in the Universe and in our minds. Very much a successor to Cosmos (see below), Hawking’s famous charm and intellect are on full display as well as his uplifting love of the Universe and the scope of his imagination. Couple that with gorgeous CG imagery and it’s a lovely show.
8. David Attenborough’s First Life
This two-part BBC production seems to be a case of Sir David Attenborough saying “Right, I’ve been telling you about the natural world for decades now, so where did it all come from?” Sir David takes us around the world and hundreds of millions of years back into time to learn how life as we know it got started. From Britain to Canada to Australia, we meet some of the oldest fossils of the first big animals to exist on this planet, brought to life in beautiful CGI. A moving retrospective on our very beginnings and living things, presented by the greatest veteran of documentary filmmaking alive today, a must-watch!
7. Egypt: Uncovered
A modest little series from the BBC, each episode is a topical coverage of a different aspect of Ancient Egyptian history or culture, including the role of the Pharaoh, the gods of Egypt, their pyramid-building days or their imperial period. Very much in the tradition of the low-key BBC-style narrated documentary with talking heads, it is both hauntingly beautiful with its music, camerawork and writing, as well as informative. I made great use of it as a high school student and as I built on that in my studies in university, I can vouch for its accuracy. Although it is a brief survey (each episode only half an hour long) it is as thorough and stirring as you could ask for.
6. World War I in Colour
There are so many World War II documentaries out there I could make a list of them alone. World War I on the other hand is far less well-served. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh once again, the centrepiece of the series is the computer-colorized footage of WWI action and political events. Each episode covers different aspects; the trenches, the air, the sea, the Eastern Front. Each makes heavy use of the diaries and speeches of the politicians, soldiers and officers of the day. The series is very Britain-centric and spares little time for the Canadian forces and none at all for theatres in Asia or Africa – even T.E. Lawrence‘s exploits don‘t warrant a mention. It makes up for it with interviews with (as of the year 2003) the last surviving British veterans of the war, including Harry Patch who died in 2009 at the age of 111 as the last trench veteran in the world. A deeply moving and straightforward portrayal of this decidedly un-heroic age.
5. Rome: Power and Glory
A sort of unofficial counterpart to Egypt: Uncovered, Rome: Power and Glory surveys the major themes of Roman history: its army, its politics, its decadence, its achievements and its decline. An American production, it uses modern American politics and culture as a recurring analogy, but in a responsible and helpful, not boastful way. Narrated by actor and perennial narrator Peter Coyote, it makes great use of the Ken Burns Effect (see below) to animate the statues and friezes, as well as short, artistic dramatizations and set pieces. Enthralling and informative, its commentary on Rome’s echoes in the modern age are thought-provoking indeed.
4. Connections and the Day the Universe Changed
A classic, Connections existed in few incarnations on BBC and TLC between the 70s and the 90s. James Burke, a British science journalist whose early career included coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, takes viewers on a mind-knotting meander through history to see how something we take for granted in the modern world, like photography, plastic wrap or computer technology, only came about because some seemingly unrelated development in, say, the Middle Ages, started a train of causality that brought about all the little details that had to happen in order for that modern item to exist. The Day the Universe Changed, also on TLC in the 90s, had the same format but tracked the change in ideas – our life’s strucutre, how we see the world, scientific principles – rather than concrete objects, inventions or products. A remarkable revelation of the intricacy of modernity and history, presented with Burke’s famous dry wit and kindly British snark, it holds up well and stands up to rewatching, if only to make sure you followed it properly!
If you’re interested in American history from a sobre and even-handed perspective, you can’t go wrong with Ken Burns. A perennial favourite at PBS, Burns has set the style for documentary filmmaking, including codifying the Ken Burns Effect (slow pans and zooms on buildings, documents and photos to bring them to life for the viewer) in making series about American History. The Civil War, Mark Twain, and Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery are among his works, but for my money his magnum opus is his epic ten-part series, originally aired in 2001, Jazz. Following the footsteps of Jazz elder statesmen Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Jazz explores the music from its birth in post-Civil War New Orleans through its evolution throughout America to the present day. Not only does it cover the music, but the personalities that shaped it: Armstrong and Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and many others. More than that, Jazz’s cultural impact is explored, through the Depression, the World Wars and the evolution of the Civil Rights movement. Lavished with the music whose story it tells, narrated by Keith David (formerly of Gargoyles and Mass Effect) and with the writings of journalists, musicians and commentators of the age read by such actors as Samuel L. Jackson, David Ogden Stiers and Derek Jacobi, Jazz will fascinate and enrich, and is a great introduction to wonderful music.
2. Planet series
The famous Planet Earth series by the BBC is actually one part of a larger sequence. Planet Earth itself surveys the many different biomes of the Earth; Jungles, the Polar Regions, the Ocean Deep, Deserts, Grasslands and (my personal favourite) Caves, to name a few. Blue Planet follows a similar format but is entirely focused on the oceans and the various sub-environments within them. Frozen Planet, of course, is entirely focused on the poles, following the tribulations of penguins, seals, polar bears and whales. Each brings you honest and exhilarating stories of life and death in these places. Frozen Planet also dedicates time to what it’s like for humans who live in these environments. All are excellent, although Planet Earth’s Polar episode and its supplementary episodes about conservation, living in the age of Climate Change as we do, are, for me, too gut-wrenching to watch. Frozen Planet, mercifully, is informative without being maudlin. Narrated, yet again, by everybody’s favourite naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, the British original version is the best. For some reason the USA seems to think Alec Baldwin and Sigourney Weaver are more palatable than Sir David, so just ignore them until they go away…
1. Cosmos: A Personal Journey
Other than the first incarnation of Connections, this is the oldest production on my list. Airing in 1980 on PBS, Cosmos was the brainchild of Cornell physicist and educator Carl Sagan. A 13-part series, Sagan personally walks us through the history of the Universe, life on Earth, and how we as humans have evolved and what we’ve made of it all, and what possibilities await us in what he calls the ‘Cosmic Ocean.’
Cosmos was once described by Sir Terry Pratchett as “the best piece of popular science that there has ever been.” And, as usual, Sir Terry is absolutely right. Carl Sagan’s great opus combines a huge range of subject matter into an informative, hugely uplifting and cautionary tale about the Universe and about us. It captures the profound joy of discovery and learning and simple satisfaction of watching the stars. Using the quaint but effective special effects of the time with art by the likes of Rick Sternbach and Adolf Schaller and the beautiful music of Vangelis, William Jeffery Boydstun and more Classical artists than I can remember, it’s an intensely emotional experience which hopes and fears for humanity’s future. The most remarkable thing about it is that, in terms of both the artistic assets and the scientific accuracy, it has aged ludicrously well, and is just about as good a teaching tool and entertainment experience as it was 30 years ago. Moreso than any other documentary on this list, this one is a must-see and is easily found on YouTube. Indeed, a lot of modern science documentaries can be seen clearly to descend from it in one way or another.
There are others I could list, the Battlefield World War II series, the Ancient Warrior series and the speculative documentaries the Future is Wild, Life After People and Alien Planet among them, but these are my favourites in the old style. Most of the older ones are on YouTube and the rest available in your average library system. So, as Prof. Hawking says in his introduction to Into the Universe, “Check it out.”