The Top 20 Nature Documentary Mini-series of All Time
I spend a decent amount of time watching, writing about, and researching sports (as the existence of this blog attests) but my true passion in life is short-run nature documentaries made for television.
It's reached the point where Netflix doesn't know what else to recommend to me.
The best of this genre are almost exclusively produced by the BBC and most often narrated by Earth's Best Human, David Attenborough. They're often made in conjunction with a US-based partner (National Geographic, Discovery Channel, PBS, etc.) and sometimes get re-cut for the US commercial breaks format and may even (foolishly) get a celebrity re-dubbing.
In honor of BBC America "debuting" episodes of South Pacific (a series that originally aired in 2009) here is my top-20 list of short run (no single episode documentaries or long-running programs like Nature, Wild Kingdom, etc.), made for TV (no IMAX conversions), nature documentaries focused on contemporary flora and fauna (no dinosaurs, space, physics, etc.).
Honorable Mention: Life on Earth (1979)
While certainly not the first of the form, this 1979 BBC production is the most important nature mini-series ever made. It introduced the world to Attenborough and captivated millions, most notably with the famed scene of a he and a gorilla.
It's impossible to rank this program against all the others that followed. It set the template for how to make a globe-spanning nature series for television. However, we now know that quite a bit of what is in the program is incorrect (something that will surely be revealed in 40 years about today's programs) and it's not in HD and so doesn't stack up as a current viewing experience.
20. Wild Russia (2009)
The only series on the list that was not at least co-produced in the U.K. checks in at number 20. The fact that it sits above numerous programs from Attenborough's "Life of" series is a testament to how good it is. The program is divided up by Russia's geography, traveling roughly West to East across six episodes. The program peaks in the Siberia episode when they visit Lake Baikal.
The series was made by a German company and has been presented with at least three different narrators and exists in multiple edits. The best version is the one presented by National Geographic, in no small part because of how host Paterson Jospeh pronounces "Kamchatka," but the Animal Planet version is more readily available.
19. Nature's Great Events (2009)
If this were a discussion of an anime series we would call Nature's Great Events a "filler arc." It's a series of six nearly stand-alone programs seemingly made specifically to be re-cut and packaged over a few years while the BBC worked on some more ambitious programs.
Still, it does a good job and focusing each program on one specific macro-event in nature gives it a different structure than many series. It's also a technical marvel; pioneering a number of camera techniques used in later series like Planet Earth 2.
In my opinion, the best moments in the series come from the Okavango Delta-based episode.
18. Frozen Planet (2011)
This may be a controversially low ranking (except that no one will ever read this) as this series was a multiple Emmy and Bafta winner. However, like Nature's Great Events, it feels like something of a filler program. Having completed Life in 2009 and with Planet Earth and The Blue Planet fading into history, Frozen Planet can come across like a program that the BBC chose because they were out of other ideas.
It jumps back-and-forth between the Arctic and Antarctic regions with a "follow the seasons" structure in the middle giving way to other, more specific, topics at the end. It probably would have been better as a four episode series instead of seven.
The series is still visually impressive and exceptionally well executed, but it suffers from comparisons to its contemporaries. It also often feels like an HD remake of the 1993 program Life in the Freezer. That series doesn't even break my top-20.
17. Life of Birds (1998)
This is another program that might just be too long. Made up of ten 50-minutes episodes it struggles to maintain a continuity of structure or story. Somewhat strangely, the series takes a detour in the middle to focus specifically on birds of prey and fishing birds, despite none of the rest of the program having focused episodes like that.
Birds are Attenborough's first love in nature (specifically birds of paradise) but this series would have benefitted from coming a few years later when HD technology was more prevalent. Birds are small and fast and standard definition does them little justice.
This series is something of a transition point for the BBC as they catch fire and go through their greatest period of programming as soon as this series is completed.
16. Wonders of Life (2013)
It's hard to say if this program belongs in the rankings, or in a different category with physics programs like the other Wonders series, Cosmos, and The Elegant Universe.
Host Brian Cox is an astrophysicist, TV host, podcaster, musician... basically Neil deGrasse Tyson except British and possibly actually cool. His Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe programs were groundbreaking both in quality and popularity, so the BBC naturally went looking for a third topic in the run.
Wonders of Life doesn't quite fit in, and isn't as good as its two predecessors, but is still an enjoyable and informative program. Getting a different voice, structure, and scientific discipline is a good thing because by 2013 the genre had been flooded with cookie-cutter programs and endless re-cuts of the same footage.
15. Life of Mammals (2002)
In 1999 and 2000 the BBC went a bit overboard, and we all benefitted from it. Life of Mammals and The Blue Planet were being filmed simultaneously with Attenborough writing and presenting this series and narrating the other. This double-bill marks the peak of the BBC's ambitions in natural history programming to that point and set the stage for the next 20 years of extraordinary work.
Like Life of Birds, this is a ten part series that suffers some from the sheer length. They did seem to learn a lesson from Birds and give Mammals a more reliable structure. It's more like the two middle episodes of Birds in that each hour focuses on a type of mammal instead of a specific piece of the nature of mammals in general.
Episodes 2-5 build up through the land-based food chain before the series shifts into other specific environments. My favorite episodes are Insect Hunters (episode 2) because they're not a class covered by many other nature specials and Life in the Trees (episode 8) because it contains the single best portion of the series when they visit Earth's Best Animal, the gibbons.
14. Madagascar (2011)
The "Continents" block of BBC nature programs make their first entry to the list with this passion project of Attenborough. In his 1960 documentary debut Sir David had gone to Madagascar and been gifted the broken shell of an extinct Elephant Bird. Fifty years later he wanted to go back to the Eden-esque island to learn more about it.
The BBC set up a dual production mission filming a single episode (and so not qualifying for this list) documentary called Attenborough and the Giant Egg alongside the more general three-part Madagascar series. The program was billed as part of the long-running Continents block which had long since strayed from its original conception of a series of series each on a (surprise!) continent.
Much of the Continents block is pretty rote nature doc stuff, but it does have a few big wins including this one. As you might expect, the series focuses a lot on lemurs but doesn't let that one animal family overwhelm the program.
13. Life (2009)
In the 21st century, BBC Natural history has produced three massive tentpole series. Life suffers significantly from being the third in the trio, coming after The Blue Planet and Planet Earth.
In many ways, it vindicates the way that Attenborough shifted the network's focus away from the most broad-focused programs into more specific topics in the 80's and 90's. He had followed Life on Earth with 1984's The Living Planet but that series isn't all that well remembered. Recognizing the problem in having multiple sequential series following too similar of a template, he started writing and presenting programs on narrower topics.
Following Planet Earth with Life was a repeat of that original mistake. It's still a wonderful series that broke new ground on multiple fronts but it's just... not Planet Earth.
12. Wild Africa (2001)
Our second nominee from the "Continents" block is Wild Africa, narrated by Fergal Keane. Attenborough is the nature documentary G.O.A.T. but one benefit of having a separate programming block is getting to hear some different voices. Keane does a nice job with Wild Africa, and Fergal Keane is a wonderfully British name.
The program is an influence to Planet Earth as it sets the "one episode per landscape type" format used in that series. The savanna and jungles of Africa have had so many other documentaries center on them that I think the best episode of this series travels around the continent's coasts. Great white sharks launching themselves out of the water to hunt seals has become almost a cliche in nature specials but when Wild Africa put it on TVs almost 20 years ago it was mind-blowing.
Much of this series has been reshot in HD and the more recent special named simply Africa covers a lot of what Wild Africa had, making the older series now harder to find.
11. The Private Life of Plants (1995)
As camera technology has improved it's opened up whole new realms to nature specials. Miniaturization made 2005's Life in the Undergrowth possible and stabilized rigs holding long zoom lenses has changed how almost all modern big-budget nature programming is done.
In 1995 it was improvements in time lapse technology that opened up the world of plants to TV viewers. The Private Life of Plants is not a series about different plants, but about how plants actually live, compete, and reproduce. The footage of vines racing to capture light and leaves following the sun across the skies like adjustable solar arrays had never been shown like this before.
Taking on this type of program must have been a risk for the BBC, but it certainly paid off. The waterlilies racing to take over Amazonian waterways is a classic scene, even when stacked up against the full catalogue of "Life of..." programs.
10. South Pacific (2009)
Before he became Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch was a British TV star breaking into the world of movies who narrated a nature documentary about the remote volcanic islands that string out across the southern pacific ocean. It's another series in the "Continents" block of BBC Natural History programming, which is a bit funny because the habitat is primarily defined by its lack of a continent.
The shows focus more on humans than any other program on this list because the story of the spread of humans across the islands cannot be separated from the story of the spread of plants and animals. Many unique island oases in the middle of the ocean desert have their own "native" colonizers competing with those that hitched rides with early human settlers or later explorers and merchants.
The series does a wonderful job covering the size and diversity of the setting. BBC America airing it has reminded me of how good a program it is, and also that there's an episode with quite a lot of talk about stranded sailors turning to cannibalization.
My personal favorite episode is number four, "Ocean of Volcanos."
9. BBC Darwin Season (2009)
I'm aware that this is cheating. For what would have been Charles Darwin's 200th birthday the BBC commissioned a series of programs. These included the mega-event Life, which I've ranked separately, but also a set of smaller budget programs. Some of them would not qualify for this list because of their topics, but I'm grouping all of Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and What Darwin Didn't Know into a single group and ranking them as a top-10 program.
The 2008-09 period is the peak of modern nature programming. This is the fifth entry on the list from that period already and we've got two more to come. Most of this explosion in content is related to Darwin's bicentennial.
Tree of Life is the best of these but is also only a single episode and so wouldn't qualify on its own. Even if it did it wouldn't have made it. In concert with the rest of the Darwin-centric programming it does, though, and is worth a watch. Darwin's Dangerous Idea, narrated by the redoubtable political interviewer Andrew Marr, is a good topic but too full of itself for my tastes.
8. The Great Rift: Africa's Wild Heart (2010)
I don't care that this isn't a particularly well loved series. It's great and "the people" are wrong.
The narrow focus of the program gives it a strong narrative format. The narrator, Hugh Quarshie, has a great voice. The cinematography is top-notch. Frankly, I don't understand why this series basically just gets thrown in with all the assembly line produced documentaries out there.
The middle section of the third episode of this series is some of the best nature documentary work ever produced, though it's the flamingo scenes that are most well remembered.
7. Yellowstone (2009)
America's first national park has been the focus of countless nature documentaries over the years. This BBC produced three part series isn't necessarily better than all the US produced content, but much of that is either big screen documentary work or part of much longer running series of the type that is usually made in America, and so doesn't qualify for the list.
This program follows the wildlife of the park through the seasons, tracking some of the same animals all year long. The show does a nice job of mixing in visits with all different animals along the way though, and not just getting tied to wolves and bison. The famed Druid Pack of wolves does still play a prominent part.
The relatively short length, popular setting, and way that it can be re-cut to fit different formats has made Yellowstone one of the most popular nature documentaries of all time, from a production standpoint. If you've seen any shows about the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in the past decade, they probably took some footage from this documentary.
6. Congo (2001)
Wild Africa may have been the big Continents event of 2001 but in my opinion its little brother Congo is a better program. Beset by filming challenges, most notably a terrible war covering most of the river's path, the program had to focus more on the story of the river than the eye candy shots that set apart most great nature specials.
The story starts with European explorers finding, and cursing, the mouth of the great river but within three episodes has you entranced by its untamed terrain and wildlife. The narrator, John Lynch, is tremendous throughout.
Because of the structure of the program, there isn't a single standout moment. It's a more cohesive single program than almost any other multi-part nature documentary. I actually can't find a good video clip from it (in part because it has such a generic name) but if you don't mind downloading things that you aren't entirely supposed to, I would recommend searching it out.
5. Blue Planet II (2017)
We hit the top five and get our first entry from the two big boys. Blue Planet 1 and 2 and Planet Earth 1 and 2 are simply the best nature documentaries ever made. I considered grouping each pair together, but they really are separate entities.
Blue Planet II is the most recent entry on this list and the first that received serious consideration for the top spot. Ultimately, I think it comes in slightly behind its series predecessor and both iterations of Planet Earth, despite being a remarkable achievement in its own right. The primary reason is that it's as much an HD reboot of The Blue Planet as a true sequel or standalone program. The episodes functionally mirror those of the original series with the arctic regions cut out.
The best work in both programs comes in their ventures to the deep ocean. The small moment of an eel venturing into a poisonous brine "lake" at the bottom of the ocean and suffering "toxic shock" as a result may be the single most amazing thing ever caught on film for a nature documentary.
4. Planet Earth II (2016)
The gap from Planet Earth to Planet Earth II was shorter than the one from The Blue Planet to Blue Planet II, but it still feels more like a standalone series than BP2 does. For that reason it checks in just above in the rankings. Had it not followed so closely on the heels of not only the original Planet Earth but also Life, it may have taken the top spot.
I think the difference is that it has a truly new episode set in man-made urban environments. Closing the series with that hour was a risk that paid off, particularly with the nightmare-fuel scenes of leopards prowling the streets of Mumbai, shot mostly in heat vision.
The scene of a newly hatched iguana trying to escape from hundreds of racer snakes in the Galapagos Islands went viral across social media, but for my money the Mountains episode is the best of the series. It contains new footage of snow leopards as its capper, but the cliff-side duel between young ibex and hunting foxes steals the show.
3. Wild China (2008)
Part natural history, part anthropology, the "Continents" programming block reached its peak with their six part investigation of China. It's so good that it breaks the Blue Planet / Planet Earth dominance at the top of the rankings.
Much of China was closed off from Western film crews all the way into the 21st century. With the announcement of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the government opened the country to new projects and the BBC was able to create this stunning series spanning from the Pacific coasts to the roof of Tibet.
The inclusion of the distinct peoples in each region gives it a structure and narrative thread that many nature series miss. This wasn't the original intent of the program but over three years of planning and 1.5 years of filming they found the country so ill equipped for nature documentary work that many of their planned segments could not actually be captured. Filming the local people interacting with nature started as gap filler but became a major focus of the series.
Lifted by Bernard Hill's wonderful narration, I've re-watched this series more than all but one other. The series includes the first public footage of a nature reserve in Tibet, closed off for over a century. Despite all the challenges that the crews encountered, it also has the first complete courtship and mating ritual of giant pandas captured on film.
My favorite episode is number four, "Beyond the Great Wall," where they range from the brutal Taklamakan Desert to the frozen city of Harbin.
2. Planet Earth (2006)
We arrive at the top two, and it could be no others.
The original Planet Earth series is the true culmination of David Attenborough's career as a nature presenter, providing a beautiful bookend with Life on Earth. It also cemented Alastair Fothergill as the greatest nature documentary producer of all time.
This was the most ambitious project in BBC history, with filming taking five full years, and their most expensive ever endeavor. The investment paid off in full. The proliferation of HD TVs and invention of new digital technology and camera rigs allowed the program to span the globe in ways that no previous series had.
Each of the eleven 50 minute episodes focuses on a specific biome, aside from the introductory episode that spans the entire globe. It's the longest series on this list but the scope is so vast that it doesn't feel overly long. Every episode could be it's own IMAX release, yet it clearly is one cohesive series.
It's hard to pick a best episode or moment. I suppose my favorite episode is on "Fresh Water." The most memorable scene in the program may be of lions hunting elephants at night, or the exceedingly rare Amur leopard in Russia, but it's the one of cordyceps parasites attacking jungle ants that sticks with me.
1. The Blue Planet (2001)
This is the best nature documentary series ever made, and for much of the world the most important. If you walked into any electronics store in the early 2000's there was good chance that The Blue Planet DVDs were playing on their biggest, flattest televisions. It broke out into the world in a way that the "Life of..." series never quite had and sent waves of fans out looking for the older programs. It proved that natural history series have a global audience and that a huge investment in a program like Planet Earth could be a good one.
The series is divided into eight episodes with each focused on a particular part of Earth's oceans. So much of the oceans were (and are) unexplored that in many cases the film crews set out to an area having no idea what they were trying to film. This was particularly true in the most famous episode, "The Deep," where they came back not only with the first footage of known animals but having discovered entirely new species.
The program became something of a phenomenon, being re-sequenced and narrated by Pierce Brosnan for the Discovery Channel in the US, turned into a feature length movie, and even into a concert tour with accompanying video projection.
The most memorable scenes may be from the open ocean episode. The massive "bait ball" of small fish being corralled by larger predators has become a part of nearly every ocean focused nature documentary since, but it was groundbreaking footage at the time.