It’s rare to pick up any deluxe Blu-ray set without getting the kinds of viewing options that would make for 17 different movies. Everything from deleted scenes to commentary tracks are available, and yet science programs are fairly barren when it comes to special features. This is a shame, because I know of a few special features that really need to happen.
1) The No Babykill Cut
I changed the channel the other day to see a zebra romping in tall grass. After a moment of quiet, during which I enjoyed its jauntily upturned back hooves, the narrator cut in with, “Although the mother fights fiercely, the male doesn’t stop until he has trampled the foal to death.” My reaction was a succession of inchoate emotions – shock, horror, nausea – followed by one, clear, rage-filled thought best paraphrased as, “What the hell did you just make me watch?”
The stealth of this particular instance is what got me, but the fact is nature documentaries are always pulling this crap. They give us tight shots of wide-eyed baby animals filled with the joy of new discovery and the playfulness of youth, and then make us watch as they are hunted down and dragged, screaming, to their deaths. Intellectually, I understand that nature is brutal, and that the death of one infant can mean the survival of many others. Personally, though, I think if I were the type that actually enjoyed spending an evening watching a baby elephant die of thirst, I should be incarcerated. Since I’m not, I expect at least to be catered to with a version of each documentary that cuts out all the terrible, heart-wrenching baby animal deaths that biologists seem determined to show us.
2) Degree of Difficulty Explanation Options
“A photon was considered to be a wave of energy.”
Okay, I got you.
“Its energy depended on the wave’s frequency. The higher the frequency, the higher the energy.”
Good, good. Go on.
“This idea was complicated when Max Planck calculated how the frequencies of energy radiated by a heated body relate to its temperature, and came to the conclusion that energy was in proportion to frequency, but units of energy were multiples of the constant of 6.626 x 10-34, or Planck’s constant.”
“The idea, though considered only a practical calculation by Planck, electrified Einstein.”
What did? No. Go back.
“He used it as the basis for his Nobel-prize winning work on the photoelectric effect.”
Damn it, damn it, damn it!
The problem with audiovisual information is it’s not easy to “re-read” material. This is a problem, as both a TV program and a book build on the material that they’ve already covered, assuming you understand. This is why there should be some kind of automatic repeat service. Information should be graded from one to five in terms of difficulty, and as the information rates higher in difficulty level, it should get more repetition. Get to a five, and the disc will skip back and repeat what it just said five times, before going back to a linear play once it’s done.
3) Show Me How You Know That
One of the major problems with science is that often the answers aren’t nearly as interesting as the process it took to get them. A camera will pan along a majestic ravine and the narrator will intone that the rocks along the ravine are hundreds of thousands of years old. To many people who only know how old the concrete paving their new highway is, the number of years is meaningless. Although the program generally goes on to give some context, it’s rarely electrifying. Even if it is, the fact that they know how old rocks are seems far more remarkable than the age of the rock itself. Understandably, the makers of the program have other things to tell the viewer, and don’t want to interrupt the narrative with an explanation of how rock age is estimated. But we still want to see it. There should be some feature on a disc that causes an icon to pop up on the screen while the narrator is telling us some fantastic fact. Press a button, and it will show an image and description of the machine or process that ascertained that fact.
4) Conservation Pricing
Do I want to spend the end of a documentary about the Great Barrier Reef listening to how it’s being destroyed? Do I want to spend the end of a documentary about an amazing telescope listening to how it’s falling apart? The answer is no, I do not, but I have no choice. I understand that I have no choice because the makers of the program need to spread the word about the financial difficulties they face.
The problem is, ending a gorgeous documentary with a real bummer of a message makes it more likely that a person will cry into their couch than that they’ll donate. That is, unless they know it’s going to happen and donate while they have their credit card out – like when they’re buying the documentary. I propose that science programs come with conservation pricing. Pay $10 more and there’s no sad message, just a list of ways you can help on the screen. Pay $25 more, and even the list is gone. Pay $50 and there’s just a quick video of a cheery, chubby toddler lisping out, “Thankth for the donation! Everything ith fine now!” and giving a thumbs up.
5) Funny Music and Narration
Look, there are thousands of YouTube videos that employ real documentary footage, real facts, and are side-splittingly funny. And that’s YouTube, home of videos of cats falling asleep and every 15-year-old’s heartfelt cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. Don’t tell me that if YouTube people can manage it, professionals can’t. (Note: No judgment, 15-year-olds of the world. That’s exactly what I would have done if I were 15 when YouTube popped into existence.)
6) All or Nothing Sex Scenes
In every nature documentary, just as certain as there’s going to be a dead baby animal on screen, there are a couple of scenes of animals mating. These scenes manage to be both uncomfortable and unsatisfying. Generally there are just enough shots to make it unmistakable what the animals are doing, but nothing that actually lets people know how they mate, so many of us are made to feel the awkwardness of sitting in a room, often with our entire family, watching animals hump, without even getting our prurient curiosity satisfied about how two swans possibly managed to hook up with all those feathers in the way.
There should be two documentary modes, one that basically invokes the ‘found them under a cabbage leaf’ explanation for how baby animals show up every spring, and one that actually shows us all the details instead of just reminding us, with visuals, that babies are made via sex. (Programs already do this with insects, which I suppose they consider too alien to be vulgar, but it needs to happen more widely.)
7) Tenure Talk
If reality TV has taught us nothing else (which is very possible), it has taught us that there is no stratum of society in which people don’t enjoy going on camera and eviscerating each other. Naturally, this isn’t going to be possible for every academic involved in a documentary, but there has to be some old codger on every academic team that has tenure at their particular academic institution, is retiring in a couple of years, and doesn’t care who hates them. Think how much fun a behind-the-scenes feature would be if they cut out the lines like, “I was really close to that seal,” and put in lines like, “And let me tell you about the sloppy research that went into this conclusion. Then again, if I hit every undergrad mixer, I wouldn’t have much time for work either. You know they had to slather on make-up to cover up the words ‘Professor Lush,’ written in permanent marker on his forehead, right?” Not only will it spice up a scientific program and be invaluable to scientific historians of the future, it might be considered a privilege of elderly academics. Sure, the undergrads are disinterested and the money isn’t great, but stay long enough and you can literally broadcast your hatred for every single person who ever crossed you.
8) Shut Up Narrator Commentary
“Ah, the octopus, graceful dancer of the ocean. It glides over the sand with infinite delicacy, as feather might drift on a gentle breeze. As it moves through the blueness, it plays its part in a vast ecosystem, predating others and being preyed upon, in a circle of life as timeless as the water it moves through.”
Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up. I don’t understand why more nature documentary narrators haven’t been moved to witness protection for their own safety. Sure, there are parts in a documentary during which the narration imparts useful information, but so much of every documentary is just a deep-voiced narrator running his mouth. Documentary DVDs already have an option that allows you to listen to the technical creators talking about getting this or that shot. They have options to listen to a Spanish or French narrator. We need the reverse of that. We need at least one audio option that cuts out the narrator entirely, and just plays neutral piano music and lets us look at the octopus in peace.
Zebra Image: Israel Free Image Collection. Otter Image: Joe Robertson. Mating Hoverflies Image: flagstaffotos.com.au. Octopus Image: NOAA Photo Library.