'Human Planet' lets viewers root for themselves


Over the last few years, natural history documentaries have tended to seldom show people (unless they were research scientists, colorful locals or obsessed sorts who wanted to live with bears or wolves or whatever), while postulating that the ecosystem was fragile and constantly under threat, and that the threat primarily originated with human beings.

Essentially, as far as wildlife documentaries are concerned, humans are usually observers, background, experiential tourists or the enemy.

But over six episodes airing two per Sunday night on April 10, 17 and 24, Discovery Channel bucks this trend with "Human Planet," a BBC/Discovery co-production that looks at the world through the eyes of the humans struggling to survive in it. (The series is slated to be released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 26.)

After all, while many modern people are effectively insulated from the harsh realities of survival, many folks still live close to nature -- and it's no walk in the park. One person who knows this well is Mike Rowe, host of Discovery's "Dirty Jobs," who narrates "Human Planet."

The series launches Sunday with "Rivers and Oceans" (which may dispel the notion that fishing is merely a relaxing pastime) and "Mountains," whose coverage ranges from Mongolian hunters and their eagle partners to Swiss engineers blowing up avalanches.

Following on April 17 are "Arctic" and "Grasslands and Jungles"; then on April 24 are "Deserts" and a best-of episode called "Life at the Extremes."

And by the way, rather than people just being shown as poachers or polluters, they're the heroes of the piece.

"We are meant to root for the people in this," says series producer Dale Templar. "In the past, natural history documentaries have either treated people as if they are the bad guys or almost pretended as if there were no human beings on Earth at all.

"What we're doing with this is saying, 'Right, here is the animal, the one incredible, phenomenally intelligent, incredibly ingenious animal that we so far haven't looked at.' The human being is absolutely the hero of 'Human Planet.' "

Also, while many animal species have disappeared or are disappearing, some human cultures have vanished altogether or are barely hanging on under homogenizing pressure from the developing world outside.

"Personally," Templar says, "I think it is about time that we made a series that looked at our own species, particularly at a time where humans are going through such massive change, and all of the diversity that we see in this series is slowly beginning to die out.

"In some ways, what we're saying is, there's been a lot of attention in the past about animals that may be endangered, or species that are endangered, but we also need to look at our own species and the incredible diversity of our own species, and look at the risks that are now being put to bear on us."

In the world of "Human Planet," harpooners leap into the water to do battle with a sperm whale to feed a village; a Mongolian father and son set a young eagle on a fox in pursuit of fur for warm winter clothes; a Himalayan father must lead his children on a perilous trek down a frozen river so they can go to school; daring Spaniards rappel off cliffs in search of a barnacle delicacy; and a departed loved one is left out for the vultures in a "sky burial."

"Wildlife lovers do have a little bit of a problem seeing animals die," says Nicolas Brown, producer of "Mountains" and "Arctic." "We redress the balance a bit. In the 'Mountains' episode, you do get a human being eaten by animals -- granted, he'd already died."

According to Templar, British audiences who've seen the show had a pretty positive reaction.

"We have been absolutely overwhelmed by the reaction here in the U.K.," Templar says. "It has made people care about humans and look at humans in a different way. It's very easy to assume that everybody lives in a nice, big city, with a Starbucks at the corner, and that life is kind of easy.

"You may put to the back of your brain that there are parts of the world where people don't have it so easy. What this series does is bring these people right into your living room."

And while modern Yanks and Brits may be whizzes with electronic technology, these people are no slouches in their world.

"(You say), 'Wow, look at how incredible these people are,' " Templar says. " 'Look at how brilliant they are, and how adaptable they are, and how ingenious they are.'

"The series has almost been an amazing refreshment for the audience. Also, in audience terms, 'Human Planet' has managed to get in a new audience that maybe wasn't generally watching natural history."

"In the Sunday Times (in the U.K.)," Brown says, "there's 'new sexy' and 'old sexy,' and we're considered 'new sexy,' because we were challenging television."

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