Ever since Charles Darwin made his way to the Galapagos, we've heard a lot about that fateful moment when some previously water-bound creature pulled itself up from the slowly receding seas, took a breath and began the eons-long march to humanity.
What we didn't know was what that creature looked like and how, specifically, it relates to us.
Based on the bestselling book of the same name, "Your Inner Fish" is a six-hour, three-part documentary determined to do just that. Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, who wrote the book and hosts the series, is infectiously enthusiastic as he takes viewers on a tour of the human anatomy, its unexpected roots (subsequent episodes cover our inner reptile and our inner monkey), most important, and why they matter. The series premieres Wednesday on PBS.
"Your Inner Fish" concentrates on the miracle of the human hand, which is, as Shubin reminds us, the real basis of civilization. It also follows Shubin's personal quest to discover that missing link, the creature whose fins had developed the essential skeletal structure of a hand — one bone, two bones, a group of smaller bones — which made it capable of transitioning from water to land.
As with most discoveries of tremendous import, the search for the critter who would come to be known as Tiktaalik roseae was long and often tedious. Though it eventually took place in the wilds of Canada's Arctic, it was prefaced by years in the lab; even in the field, most of the labor was grueling, fastidious and, until it wasn't, fruitless.
Not surprisingly, all three episodes of "Your Inner Fish" are studded with many fine CG moments, and Shubin and his producers go out of their way to overcome this basic truth of science by attempting to humanize even the most ancient bits of the process. During the first night, Shubin learns that one of his neighbors has the remnants of a gill, a revelation perhaps more remarkable in its coincidence than physical form (it's just a very tiny hole by her ear.)
Ironically, the show's attempt to make itself more conversational and less scientific is its weakest point. Shubin is a clear and engaging educator who repeatedly draws a fascinating and easily understood line from ancient and diverse life forms to our thoroughly modern selves. What he is saying, and what the scientists are doing is quite fascinating enough without little cutaways to folks with genetic oddities, encounters at an IVF clinic or scenes of beach volleyball. Indeed, it's this popularizing padding, rather than the scenes from the lab or field, that make the episodes feel, at times, overlong.
Still, it's hard to begrudge any man's quite noble effort to sell complicated science and romanticize the work of scientists. After watching the series, it's difficult not to wonder whether it's too late to become a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist because Shubin and his peers appear to be having a blast. All in all, "Your Inner Fish" reminds us what smart TV really is.
Something that, apparently, began with a fish.
'Your Inner Fish'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)