BBC Documentary 'Life' Is an Amazing Journey

There may well be a pattern in the human genome that draws us toward images of the wild, played out in full color and with the frequent use of slow motion. In the world of nature documentaries, you'd be hard pressed to find one better than Planet Earth. When the BBC series made its debut in 2006, it instantly created a class of its own; the colors were brighter, the quality better, and the slow-mo ever more dramatic. Its content also dominated, featuring close-up scenes of the earth's most intimate events, captured by meticulous, and patient, filmmakers. After winning a slew of festivals and TV awards, criticssaid it couldn't be topped.

Four years later, its producers are back to prove those critics wrong. The latest effort, Life, begins Sunday on the Discovery Channel. If Planet Earth set the stage of the planet, Life introduces the quirky cast. The product is an 11-part series that's nothing short of mind-blowing—a shocking view of just how vibrant and dynamic our terrestrial brethren actually are. Each installment captures a different strata of the planet's creatures—mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, plants, primates, insects, hunters and the hunted, and creatures of the deep—in a series of stunning vignettes. Utilizing the best film technology ever employed and a seasoned score by British composer George Fenton, Life impressively captures the artistry and brutality of being alive.

And brutal it is—every day, a contest to acquire the limited resources needed for survival. It's a funny thing, really, to see the critters of the world in a mad scramble to best one another. With a subtle lesson in how evolution works, the series delivers the simple message that between hunting for food while at the same time not becoming food, life for almost all of Earth's species is actually really tough. But far from being morbid, the series instead offers a reassuring depiction of the natural ebb and flow of the life cycle, and how the realities of limited survival manage to squeeze out the weakest links. Seeing the methods that land and sea creatures have adopted to survive gives a clear picture of how they rose to the top of their gene pool, and the skills and features their departed aunts and uncles obviously lacked.

Clown fish that hide their eggs in a sea anemone to keep them away from predators are amazingly inventive. The way bottle-nose dolphins off the coast of Florida raise the mud of the shallow sea floor to catch fish is simply ingenious. "They're so smart," one might think, the same way you'd describe a dog who knows how to obey simple commands.

The instinct is to see evolutionary resourcefulness as both incredible and cute, an adjective chock full of condescension. But maybe that condescending attitude is deserved. After all, what primate or sea dweller could go up against human ingenuity? Advanced medicine doesn't seem to fit in the same weight class as a primate using a rock to crack a nut. Nor could even the most imaginative octopus hold a candle to our industrial agriculture.

That kind of species' hubris turns out to be the underlying message, even if never stated directly by Oprah Winfrey, who narrates the episodes (and whose lack of scientific authority is the only thing that detracts from the natural beauty. Winfrey replaces the respected British science journalist David Attenborough, who wrote Life and narrated the documentary when it aired in the United Kingdom and Canada). The series offers amazing scenes, but is sobering in what it makes us realize—that our amazement is a symptom of just how far we've distanced ourselves from the order of species. It's then fitting, albeit perhaps undeserved, that we're the ones tasked with determining the future of the planet. Beyond our own self interest, Life paints a picture of what else is at stake.