Frozen Planet, an enchanting seven-part series beginning Sunday night on Discovery, is the cable network's latest high-def extravaganza. You know the drill: years in the making against extreme conditions, co-produced with those relentlessly determined British film crews who continue to press the limits of what a nature film can do to the mind. It joins Planet Earth and Life to reign as a triumvirate in Best Buy showrooms. Nothing looks better, sounds better.
The series travels to polar regions in the north and south. Its first episode establishes the vast, mysterious beauty of Earth's coldest spots; each episode works its way through the subsequent four seasons and the hard-going life cycles of frigid inhabitants. There are penguins, whales, polar bears, seals, furry critters. There are Inuit natives hunting walrus and scavenging for mussels under tons of tidal ice. There's that fabulous instant of spring awakening in northern Alberta, when a frozen waterfall cracks and dislodges a raging flow.
All of it narrated by Alec Baldwin's chill gravel. Baldwin is cresting a wave of ubiquity that now includes credit-card commercials, podcasting, film roles, hosting gigs, airplane incidents and, of course, 30 Rock. "Even polar bears enjoy a little bit of foreplay," Baldwin says, as if about to enjoy some himself.
Documentaries like this are nearly critic-proof, unless the critic wants to busy himself asking too many questions about how the darned thing was made, to the point of cross-examining the narrative: Is this female polar bear climbing a mountain to do the deed with her newfound mate indeed the same polar bear we saw a few minutes ago traversing an icy plain? Is this seal meeting his demise with another goon squad of killer whales the same fella we were watching elude them earlier? Do the clouds whip over antarctic peaks that fast or is that time-lapse?
Hush, now . . . shh. Talk too much and you'll ruin it. Frozen Planet is best enjoyed as a whiteout storm across the mind. (Some of your curiosity about how it was made is addressed in a "making of" chapter April 8.)
With all the icing-over, oozing, spreading and melting, Frozen Planet offers an odd and perhaps deceptive reassurance. With so much talk of the climate catastrophe that looms in our future, it's good to see the big Earth machine determinedly doing its thing. Frozen Planet's objectivity and travelogue feel may test the patience of committed environmentalists, who must wait until the next-to-last episode ("On Thin Ice") for the series to address scientific evidence of what's happening to the ice caps.
A spooky and even mournful feeling runs deep beneath Frozen Planet's smooth surface. Is this a celebration of the icy realm or a farewell retrospective?