Oprah and Komodos
I’m easily excited by shows on television about animals–wild ones, of the non-human variety. Programs like “Nature” and “Nova” on PBS are all-time favorites. I was blown away by the HD nature series “Planet Earth” that aired on Discovery Channel a few years ago (co-produced by the BBC and Discovery Channel). “Planet Earth” featured beautiful, groundbreaking video of diverse habitats across the planet. The producers of “Planet Earth” recently unveiled a new nature series, titled “Life,” that premiered last Sunday evening on Discovery Channel, and should be running for several weeks. Highly similar in style to “Planet Earth”, “Life” features stunning videography, crisp editing, and gripping stories to satisfy bio-whores like myself. I highly recommend it, just as long as you don’t mind being lectured on biology by Oprah Winfrey.
For the American version of “Planet Earth”, the producers struck gold with narration–the exceedingly composed, yet just-so tense, buttery smooth voice of Sigourney Weaver. But in the two chapters of “Life” I watched last Sunday, I felt like I was being read a children’s book. Oprah’s voice is too cherubic to convey the severity of, for example, a pack of Komodo dragons devouring a Water Buffalo to the bone in four hours. Don’t ruin this for me Discovery Channel.
The background music was also often unnecessarily over-dramatic, at times sounding like pieces mainstream movies use during transition scenes where time and character emotions quickly evolve in schmaltzy ways. This window dressing is clearly there to impress those who are not already impressed. I guess I appreciate the effort.
The content of “Life,” though, is superb. Life itself is distilled into three central tenets: eat, avoid being eaten, and reproduce. To demonstrate these principles, stories are drawn from many different animals (mammals, reptiles, fish, insects, etc.), and even plants (Venus Flytrap). For example, in introducing reproductive methods of the male stalk-eyed fly, Oprah mentions the “urge to breed”, and that males often have to “earn the right”. For a premature stalk-eyed male fly to become a heavily endowed, mature one, they climb to the top of a plant and then pump up their translucent eye stalks with air bubbles that they engulf, causing their eyes at the ends of the stalks to grow out away from their bodies. The most well-endowed males may then convene to fight, winner gets the female.
Sardines were highlighted for a technique they use to avoid being eaten by swordfish–swimming together in a large school, wholly changing direction rapidly, like a “single organism”, making it harder to pick out individuals.
For an example of the need to eat, the show reprised a wonderful story that was also in the Planet Earth series, the most human-like, showing clever monkeys from central Brazil that use rock tools to crack open nuts they rely on for food. Younger monkeys imitate their elders, unsuccessfully, for up to eight years before they perfect nut cracking.
The segment from last Sunday that dropped my jaw the farthest concerned a hungry Komodo dragon. (Hmm… great name for a heavy metal band.) On an island in Indonesia, the only region in the world these huge lizards are found, it’s dry season. Food’s at a premium. This is no time to be anywhere near a Komodo dragon. The cameramen happen upon a sole Water Buffalo lazily sauntering around an evaporating watering hole. A nearby Komodo seizes its opportunity. At first, the Water Buffalo mostly ignores the lizard, seeing only a nuisance. The Buffalo outsizes the Komodo as an adult human a house cat. But the Komodo needs just one, venomous bite to begin meal preparation. The dragon waits for the perfect moment to sink its teeth into the Buffalo’s leg, wary to avoid a powerful kick that could break it’s jaw or kill it. Once successful, the venom begins to set in very slowly. The Komodo is “focused” and “relentless.” It follows the weakening Buffalo everywhere, continually harassing it. Soon other Komodos follow suit, realizing an imminent meal. The Buffalo lacks sufficient food and water, and its wounds fester. After three weeks, the Buffalo succumbs. Within four hours it’s museum ready, skeletonized. That’s life.