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The Human Body

BBC/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 350 mins . PG . PAL


Here are a few intriguing facts for you. In a lifetime the average human being will spend three and a half years eating, six months getting rid of that which was eaten on the loo (including the expulsion of 40,000 litres of urine) and will walk around 22,000 kilometres. They will grow 950 kilometres of hair on their head, two metres from their nose, 28 metres of fingernails and shed 19 kilograms of dead skin. There will be twelve years spent sitting in front of the telly (oops, I fear my time is almost up then), two and a half years on the telephone (now I'm really getting scared!) and we'll apparently have sex 2580 times. Phew, if the last one is any indication then I have a LOT of time left up my sleeveÖ

After a number of years in the making, The Human Body was first aired by the BBC in 1998, and came to our screens soon after courtesy of the ABC. Unfortunately way too few people noticed it then, but with it being repeated recently on Channel Ten it would seem that a whole new audience has been given the chance to bear witness to what is an absolutely remarkable series. Whereas so many documentaries end up drier than the Simpson Desert, and usually about as interesting, this series is a rarity in that it is essentially riveting throughout, with the producers going to much effort to maintain our interest, and with the host Robert Winston (a doctor, scientist, professor and lord no less) adding a touch of humour, fun and incredible knowledge to proceedings. Certainly not afraid to go to great lengths to keep things intriguing, Lord Bob goes rally driving, catches roller coasters and tube trains, gets thrown about in a life raft and more, as well as journeying around the world to such places as the pyramids, France, Africa and our own outback. You also have to admire somebody who will knock over a couple of bottles of cabernet sauvignon, rendering him completely sozzled, in the name of helping us understand science just that little better - what a guy!

The Human Body is anything but simply a bunch of great locations and a touch of humour though, with many revolutionary techniques developed especially for the series allowing us to witness things that are so close to each and every one of us, yet still remain more mysterious than most anything else in the universe. All manner of incredible gadgetry is employed throughout the series, from heat sensitive cameras, to endoscopes, computer generated imagery based on everything from motion capture to MRI scans and some remarkable time-lapse photography. We get to see things firsthand that have never been witnessed by human eyes before this series was made, from ovulation, to growing foetuses to the actual inner ear. Rather than just running through a string of 'the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone' (or whatever) type topics as has been the case with most such documentaries in the past, The Human Body manages to humanise things all the more by dividing episodes essentially into a timeline of the species, tracing life from the womb to the tomb as such for what is the most complicated object in the known universe - us.

Episode 1 - Life Story: Acting essentially as an introductory overview of what is to come, we find out a number of quite amazing facts about ourselves, such as the rather icky news that we evolved from bacteria many millions of years ago, and our many similarities to other species in the animal world.

Episode 2 - An Everyday Miracle: The absolute wonder of pregnancy is covered here, and we follow the development from pre-conception to eventual birth of a couple, Phillippa and Jeff's, little girl. It's amazing how little is still known about much of what happens, and indeed how risky the whole process is. Only one out of six embryos actually survive, and the ten-centimetre journey from the womb to the outside world is the most hazardous one we will ever undertake. Covering all aspects of pregnancy, we are even treated to witnessing the actual birth of a child, one of the most amazing and wondrous sights you could ever witness.

Episode 3 - First Steps: Covering the first four years of life, those in which we will learn and develop more than in the rest of our entire lives. We follow babies Bob and Zach as they grow, and get to see some sensationally beautiful and incredible footage displaying the diving reflex, which allows pre-six month old babies to hold their breath and swim under water. From teething, crawling and walking, to mental development, speech, language, self awareness, and, of course, the inevitable tanties - it's all here as never seen before.

Episode 4 - Raging Teens: Ah, the four years of hell so politely named 'puberty'. We follow a British girl named Beatrice (she likes the band Placebo, she must be cool) over a period of 18 months as well as some Californian guys, as they experience the literal roller coaster ride of everything from breast development, periods and pubic hairs (we even discover why they're short and curly - short because they only have a six month life span, and curly because they are completely flat) to breaking voices, dropping balls, growth spurts and unwanted spurts. Everything that oestrogen and testosterone can throw at us is covered, including the emotional highs and lows, sexual maturity and that inevitable search for independence.

Episode 5 - Brain Power: Delving into the most complex of our organs, we find out everything from why we get drunk (it isnít the alcohol as such, it's all the fatty acids in our brain), and how the various segments control our different functions from brief recall, long term memory, learned behaviour, personality/consciousness, memory and developing abilities to deal with politics and general social interaction.

Episode 6 - As Time Goes By: Did you know that we are the only animals that actually grow old? Whereas most just hang around long enough to reproduce and raise their young, we are indeed all too stubborn for that. Here we get to hang out with a Kansas couple of 45 years, Bud and Viola, find out about hair loss (sorry guys, it's the testosterone that does it), changes in eyesight and other senses throughout our lives, menopause and how oxygen, that which we all need to live, is ironically also what causes so many of the icky parts of ageing, thanks in no small part to free radicals. There is also an extended look at the show's intro, which features a time line showing a number of mostly naked people ranging from age 0 to 102.

Episode 7 - The End of Life: A rather sombre end to the series, as we witness the eventual death from a fatal stomach cancer of the quite remarkable Herbie, and how his wonderful wife Hannelorre deals with it all. We also literally get to see a heart attack, and discover that death is actually a slow winding down effect - even when you stop breathing it still takes a while for the rest of your body to completely grind to a halt.


Ah, bless those British. There's none of your typical full screen made for television stuff here, rather we get treated to a 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced presentation, lending the whole affair just that extra level of classiness.

The vision we get comes from a remarkable number of sources, and does vary in quality quite substantially. Some of the filmed outdoors sequences display a few speckles here and there, shimmering pops up on very rare occasions and in some instances there are definite signs of graininess, however none of it is particularly intrusive. There is also a tendency toward grain in some of the shots of internal functions, but when you take into account the magnification involved, with much of this stuff being shot through cameras ranging from the size of a drinking straw down to an optic fibre then you'd be pretty tough if you were to complain about it.

Other than the few minor niggles mentioned above, in all The Human Body is presented quite beautifully, with black levels, colour saturation and sharpness all essentially spot on, in fact often beautifully vivid. Once again, considering the sheer magic performed in bringing some of this vision to our screens, much of it for the first time ever, I feel nothing but kudos are deserved for what we receive.

My only major complaint with the series is that only two of the episodes have proper timing information, whereas the other five have none whatsoever. I did receive test discs for review, so with luck somebody will notice this snafu before the discs go into production.


The Human Body comes with pretty standard Dolby Stereo sound, however it does suit the production perfectly. The naturally front-biased sound field is nicely spaced out, with no audio synch dramas and perfectly clear dialogue at all times, the latter thanks in no small part to Robert Winston's absolutely beautiful speaking voice.

Elizabeth Parker concocted the original score for the series, and the incredible range of styles she has come up with for varying scenes adds a lot to the sheer classiness of the package. Add to this great tracks such as Disco 2000 from Pulp, Loaded by Primal Scream, A Girl Like You by Edwyn Collins, Say a Little Prayer from Aretha Franklin and more, and you not only get a fascinating documentary series, you also get quite a groovy audio compilation!


The first two discs basically contain just the series, with the addition of English subtitles for the hearing impaired. They both feature a nicely animated and musically enhanced menu, featuring one of those gorgeous little swimming bubs I raved about earlier. The menus arenít exactly the most logical to navigate, but once you get the hang of them they don't really pose any problems.

The third disc features a similarly themed menu, although it is not animated, but this is where all the extras action isÖ

The Making of The Human Body: A fifty minute, full frame feature giving us a unique behind the scenes look at many of the more incredible segments of the series. We get interviews with many of the key behind the scenes people, from directors and producers, to camera operators and computer whizzes plus some of the people whose internal bits were brought to us in living colour. It has a tendency to show a lot from the actual series, but then usually veers off into explanations behind the techniques used to make the segments. The swimming bubs are covered in detail, as is the line of time segment. In all a fascinating accompaniment to the main feature for anybody marvelling at just how they pulled much of it off.

DVD ROM features - Body Labs: A sizeable chunk of the separately sold interactive CD ROM, DVD ROM equipped users get the entire set of eight Body Labs to play with. Topics covered are respiration, circulation, digestion, nervous system, senses, defences, muscle and bone and reproduction - where you even get to drive sperm around in the hope of successfully fertilising an egg!


Easily the most incredible and fascinating example of documentary filmmaking ever experienced by this little reviewer, by rights The Human Body should be an essential purchase for absolutely everybody. It's infinitely more intriguing and exciting than any big blockbuster film you could ever name, and even if for some reason you donít have any interest in it yourself, if you have children then you should get it for their education alone. After all, be it big, small, short or tall, we all have a human body of our very own.

Presentation-wise, the complete series comes to us in a single case with a flip-flop tray, whilst the 'Making of' and DVD ROM features are contained on a separately packaged disc, all housed in a glossy slipcase that to be honest isnít of the sturdiest build (as I stare at my one that is falling apart). The extra features certainly offer great value, especially for those with a DVD ROM drive, but in all the series itself is well worth the price of admission on its own, even if it does seem a trifle steep at a RRP of $69.95. Compare this to the UK price however (especially considering our woeful exchange rate), and it comes up as an absolute bargain.

Oh, and if you ever happen to read this Mr/Dr/Professor/Lord Winston, if you would like a dinner companion the next time you're planning on knocking off a nice bottle of red, I canít think of a more fascinating person in the world who I'd rather share a meal with...

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  •  DVD NET Gold Review List 
      And I quote...
    "Easily the most incredible and fascinating example of documentary filmmaking ever experienced..."
    - Amy Flower
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Pioneer DV-535
    • TV:
          Sony 68cm
    • Receiver:
          Onkyo TX-DS494
    • Speakers:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse RBS662
    • Centre Speaker:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse ECC442
    • Surrounds:
          DB Dynamics Eclipse ECR042
    • Subwoofer:
          DTX Digital 4.8
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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