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'Kingdoms of the Sky' review: Exploration of natural beauty, with a human touch

Bighorn sheep fight over mates in Wyoming in

Bighorn sheep fight over mates in Wyoming in this scene from PBS' "Kingdoms of the Sky." Credit: BBC/Lydia Baines

DOCUMENTARY "Kingdoms of the Sky"

WHEN | WHERE Part one premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This three-parter from the BBC's legendary Natural History Unit travels to three mountain ranges — the Rockies (Wednesday), Himalayas (July 18) and Andes (July 25) — where it explores the natural wonders and some of the human wonders, too. For example, Wednesday's opener features extreme skier Hilaree Nelson O'Neill, who climbs remote Mount Sneffels in Colorado, then skis back down; Montana BASE jumper Jeff Shapiro also demonstrates his skills for the camera (BASE jumping is parachute or wingsuit-flying from a fixed object, like — in this case — a 3,000-foot sheer cliff). The hour on the Himalayas visits mountain residents — human and natural — of China, India and Nepal, while the one on the Andes checks in on the only "glacier-nesting bird in the world" (white-winged Diuca finches).

MY SAY PBS calls this latest series from the Natural History Unit a "landmark" production, but as you've figured out already, we've seen this kind of "landmark" production before. Over the years, mountains have assumed a starring role in — a very partial list — "The Living Planet" (1984), "Andes to Amazon" (2000), "Planet Earth" (2006), "Yellowstone" (2009) and "Planet Earth II (2016)." Mountains, along with seas, deserts, tundra, forests and grassland, are what NHU does. 

And not to fault PBS for this minor act of embellishment, but the Natural History Unit has always been in the landmark business. From sea to shining sea, and from pole to frigid pole, the NHU has long set its sights on some natural world marvel and turned it into Wagnerian opera. In this film, that would be: Beast against beast, the brutal battle for survival plays out in a majestic landscape where mountains are piled upon mountains, and where the titanic stakes are life and death.

Yes, NHU likes a little bit of dramatic embroidery now and then. A bighorn sheep standoff is described here as "the biggest rumble in the Rockies." A mountain salamander "grows into something menacing — he's transformed into a cannibal and he's having his family for dinner!"

But get past these groaners and you get to what's really important: Like so many NHU films over the years, "Kingdoms of the Sky" is restorative television, and a salve for our bruised spirits. The planet is warming, the seas are dying, while the Rockies are crumbling and Gibraltar is tumbling — with apologies to Gershwin — but never on an NHU film like "Kingdoms." The world of "Kingdoms" is wild and free, the vistas endless, the mountains nameless. There's magic in the world, or what could be magic. A vast salt flat in the Andes turns into a mirror after a rare rain and at night seems to reflect the entire universe. Tibetan Buddhists create an exquisitely intricate sand "mandala" — literally a huge painting made of sand — then destroy it in an instant, representing a "final act [and] key Buddhist belief that nothing lasts forever."

Nothing does, but the prevailing illusion of "Kingdoms" and so many other NHU films over the years is that the natural world is permanent and here to stay. We now know better, but this may be an important illusion nonetheless. After all, it's important to see what we stand to lose before it's gone forever. "Kingdoms of the Sky" is just one more bracing and necessary reminder from a treasured institution that there's still a world out there worth saving.

BOTTOM LINE A beauty — as if it could be otherwise — with a welcome human touch, too.


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