When it comes to creating documentaries about the grandeur of the Earth, “strange” is a difficult bar to reach.
Thanks to dozens of amazing shows that have come before, and the pervasive popularity of small screen wonders like Shark Week, not to mention David Attenborough’s cult status in this realm, most people have seen enough strange sights from the natural world to last a lifetime.
But like early world explorers — the ones who ventured out into harsh landscapes in search of oddities, not those of us who enjoy watching them from the comfort of our living room — National Geographic’s 10-part series One Strange Rock attempts to stretch these boundaries in search of something truly strange.
And what better way to push the envelope than to travel beyond the edge of the atmosphere that envelopes our strange rock? Sadly, the documentary cameras don’t blast off atop a SpaceX rocket, but we do get first-hand accounts from several intrepid space explorers (aka astronauts) — including Chris Hadfield, Nicole Stott, and Mike Massimino.
These astronauts add much to the series. They have, after all, seen the Earth from on high, with all the awe and wonder that comes with that outer-worldly experience. The producers’ decision to include these travelers gives the topic just enough of a new spin that viewers might find something strange on and around the planet.
Seeing the Earth from the vacuum of space makes it clear that the world is not just its living and breathing natural parts. There is also a whole lot of rock (and water, clouds, and other inorganic substances). That makes One Strange Rock one part natural history, one part Earth science — and one part “floating in a most peculiar way,” as Hadfield sang that time in space.
And lest you be disappointed, the astronauts and the luminous spheroids of plasma that dot our night sky are not the only stars that accompany viewers on this journey around the planet.
Will Smith, aka The Fresh Prince and Agent J, among other characters, narrates the series. This gives the documentary a touch of down-to-Earthness that keeps it real — the scene with Massimino riding around New York City in a taxi helps, too.
As planetary guide, Smith’s role is to conduct us safely around the planet and provide us with insights into how our Strange Rock has changed over time (like giving us a glimpse of the “fire and brimstone” early on in the Earth’s history).
Along the way, he introduces us to experts with deep insight into the Earth, some of them scientists who actually study “deep” things, like coral reefs, dinosaur footprints, and Chinese limestone that once used to be bones and shells.
We also learn about the chemical processes that keep our bodies running. In one segment, Hadfield talks about how precious oxygen is for our bodies — by describing his experience with hypoxia, or lack of oxygen.
Oxygen is so important that it defines where humans can live. If you go too high up in the mountains, the atmosphere is too thin for people to breathe. But if you go under the water, humans (except for AquaMan) can’t access the oxygen present in the water.
Too little oxygen is bad, but so is too much oxygen. Three hundred million years ago, the oxygen level in the Earth’s atmosphere was much, much higher, “so much that the planet just burned,” says Smith. The same would be true today.
But fortunately for us, since then the oxygen levels have been “surprisingly constant,” says Hadfield, making up 20.95 percent of our atmosphere. This highlights a key fact about the Earth —balance. But our world is not just balance. Everything on the planet is also remarkably intertwined.
“The world is connected in a thousand ways,” says Smith — although it’s probably more likely millions of ways.
Bats eat fruit and spread the seeds in their droppings. The Earth tilts just the right amount for us to have winter and summer toward the polar regions. A butterfly flaps it wings in the rainforest and a bird eats it, and so on.
For Buddhists, this is interdependence at its finest. Everything depends upon everything else. It’s this kind of mutual arising that allows us, and all other life forms, to continue to live on the Earth.
With 10 episodes to travel along with, there’s a lot of nature and geology and other -ologies to experience in One Strange Rock. Whether or not you find that itlives up to its name — or if it’s just One Rock — will depend upon your previous exposure to other strangeness on the big and small screens. And, of course, your ability to “geek out” on all things science.
But even if the documentary doesn’t appear all that strange to you, it’s still worth watching. Strange or not, our planet — whether it’s called One Strange Rock or Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot — is still amazing. There’s no denying that, even when viewed from the comfort of our plush recliner chairs.
Of course, we may not all be like Stott and the other astronauts, looking down at the Earth with a sense of “wonder and strangeness,” as Hadfield describes it. But that doesn’t mean we terrestrial beings can’t appreciate the Earth as “one shared place.”
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