NatGeo’s One Strange Rock, the channel’s 10-part exploration of planet Earth, represents the blockbusterization of nature documentaries. The new series from executive producer Jane Root, through her production company Nutopia, along with showrunner Arif Nurmohamed, delivers a fascinating deep dive into the connectivity of all things on the planet, from the air that we breathe to the elements that keep the sun’s harmful radiation from cooking us in our skins. But it also takes things up a notch, bringing on Will Smith as host, and framing many of the episodes from the perspective of astronauts who’ve had the privilege of looking down at the planet from space. It’s a three-pronged approach that turns the series into a true event, one that feels appropriately expansive considering the subject matter.
At first glance, One Strange Rock reads like it will fall victim to the “But also…” curse of television shows not knowing when to say when in terms of the breadth of not only their content but also the people involved. Will Smith and astronauts seems like a pretty easy sell for most viewers, but just in case it’s not, the series also counts Darren Aronofsky as one of its producers. That is a lot to take in, and the concern that there might be far too many moving parts is certainly understandable. Yet, from the three episodes that were made available to critics, One Strange Rock and all its various components, work together quite well.
Each episode is framed around a single concept, and that concept is explored in part through the experiences of a primary astronaut — though they’re not the only astronaut to appear — and also through some gorgeous cinematography, taking viewers across the globe, and, not surprisingly, beyond. There’s a lot information being served up, but instead of the typical narrator device, One Strange Rock uses Smith as a kind of everyman or proxy for the audience. He’s there to not only distill the information but also to share in the wonder, like a hype man for the planet.
The premiere, ‘Gasp,’ explores how the air that we breathe is made, how it moves, and how the planet maintains its oxygen levels. Astronaut Chris Hadfield serves as the primary focus for the hour. He recalls a time when he was performing a space walk and his eyes started watering. That’s a big problem in zero gravity, Hadfield explains, describing a growing blob of water obscuring his vision inside his helmet. His only option was to vent some of his precious oxygen into space, expelling the liquid in the process. Hadfield’s such a compelling presence that his anecdote doesn’t require fancy visuals or a dramatization; it simply underlines how vitally important oxygen is, even if we go through our days taking it for granted most of the time.
That framing device helps keep the hour focused and on point, even as some of the places the series is willing to go in the span of an hour can sometimes surprise. ‘Gasp’ is perhaps the best at connecting the episodes' various locations with the central idea at hand. One of the most compelling places it takes the audiences is to a giant “river in the sky”, an invisible path that oxygen travels in the planet’s atmosphere. And, as One Strange Rock is so interested in exploring, it shows the surprising ways in which this unseen force connects the planet in surprising ways.
Again, the series turns to the astronauts, asking them to describe what it’s like watching an enormous sandstorm in the Sahara spread across the Atlantic Ocean, dropping particles in South America and effectively fertilizing the region from the other side of the world. It’s a fascinating connection that, unlike Hadfield’s own anecdote, is backed up with images of what the scientists and astronauts are describing. It’s captivating to watch.
Like similar documentary series, One Strange Rock lives and breathes on its visuals, but the series takes it a step further in terms of the package that’s delivering them. The blockbuster effect is apparent from the start, the cutaways to Smith as he frolics in the park with his dogs or hits the gym to do a little boxing can be a little disorienting, especially when you consider one of the biggest movies stars on the planet has been cast in the role as the “everyman.” But compared to the experiences of people like Hadfield or astronaut and engineer Nicole Stott or even Jeff Hoffman, who was instrumental in fixing the Hubble Space Telescope, Smith does feel strangely ordinary.
The series is ultimately another fascinating exploration of the planet, one that takes surprising steps to show the audience things they’ve likely never seen and in ways they wouldn’t think to see them. One Strange Rock is the answer to the question “How do we do a nature documentary, but bigger than ever before?” It’s an enormous undertaking that’s often breathtaking in its presentation, one that is befitting the blockbuster status it’s striving for.
One Strange Rock continues next Monday with ‘Storm’ @9pm on NatGeo.