Discovery and the BBC sank $25 million and five years into the 11-hour Planet Earth, the latest collaboration between naturalist David Attenborough and producer Alistair Fothergill (The Blue Planet). If Discovery was airing what British viewers saw last year, the grade above would be at least two stars higher; instead, Americans get an edited version with new narration by Sigourney Weaver (in a voice eerily reminiscent of the computer on the starship Enterprise), which seemingly treats nature documentaries as a competitive sport.
Each hour focuses on a different facet of the relationship between animals and the ecosystem, and in “Pole to Pole” and “Mountains” (two of the three episodes airing Sunday 25), Weaver regularly dips into a toolbox of hyperbolic phrases—for the first time and never before are particular favorites—as she introduces stunning high-definition footage of suckling polar bears and wolves stalking caribou. A little self-congratulatory language is one thing, but when the truly heavy artillery comes out—a clip of a snow leopard is “the brass ring of natural history”—you start to wonder why Discovery didn’t just hire Marv Albert.
Narrating the British episodes (which, lacking commercial breaks, run at least ten minutes longer), Attenborough basically uses the same script, but the carnival barker--isms are nowhere to be found. His inflections—from avuncular to grim, as the situation demands—reminds us that nature itself is far more awe-inspiring than any technical achievement. The BBC’s one true Planet Earth arrives on DVD April 24, and the gulf between it and the Discovery version may have been summarized best by the anonymous Internet poster who said, “David Attenborough is a hero of mine, whereas Sigourney Weaver was pretty good at pretending to be scared of aliens.”—Andrew Johnston