Drama of the Planet Earth

Intriguing series makes skillful use of medium in tracing geologic history

THE MIRACLE PLANET Part 2: ``The Heat Within'' PBS, Monday, 8-9 p.m. (check local listings). Second of six parts. A co-production of KCTS/Seattle and Japan's NHK television. DRIFTING at the geologic speed limit of about 30 ft. per century, India - once a chunk of Africa - ``crashed'' into Asia, causing that wrinkle of earth crust known as the Himalayas.

In fact, all the continents were once a single land mass on one side of the planet, with a pole-to-pole ocean on the other. It is Earth's 4.8 billion-year cooling process (still in progress) that has left its present face. The Earth's interior heat - detectable daily in such places as Iceland and Yellowstone National Park - is still dividing Africa into chunks: Look for an ocean where the Rift valley is now, in about 50 million years.

If you think you'd have to be a Laurence Olivier to get your own children interested in these scientific facts, you'll be glad to know PBS has come up with a series compelling enough to do the job. Tantalizing visuals - underwater and aerial films, animation, and computer graphics - add to the calmly informative narration of Bill Kurtis for a six-part series that ranges from interesting to astonishing.

The series explores some intriguing questions: Although formed from the same universal materials as the rest of the solar system, why was it only Earth that wound up with the climate and chemicals that have allowed such resplendently diverse life forms? What were the threats to the planet's delicate balance of atmosphere that in the past have caused recurring periods of mass extinction involving up to 90 percent of the species on Earth?

In answering such questions, the cameras take us beneath the oceans, where 45,000 miles of underwater mountain ranges ripple the crust; to volcanically active Hawaii and Iceland; down an 11,000-ft.-deep mine in South Africa. The series also offers the equivalent of six symphonies' worth of specially composed new music.

Slow-paced and deliberate, giving viewers a good feel for far-flung regions and epochs past, ``The Miracle Planet'' represents the best use of the electronic hearth. It's the perfect family program - spanning the scientific beginnings and evolution of the planetary home we all share. And, beyond the seeds of knowledge and wonder it sows, ``The Miracle Planet'' also sows seeds of survival - by underlining the global environmental challenges that face every nation today.

Last Monday's premi`ere, ``The Third Planet'' explored such questions as why Earth didn't become a blazing inferno like Venus or a frozen desert like Mars.

The second installment, airing Monday, will examine the continuous release of heat from the Earth's core and its effect on the surface's geographic profile and the placement of the great mineral deposits.

The remaining programs look specifically at the oceans, atmosphere and weather, deserts, and ice ages. The last segment poses the question: How can the planet continue to support the human species?

Much of the film for ``The Miracle Planet'' was shot for Japan's NHK television several years ago and presented in a series of somewhat different form there. KCTC President Burnill Clark discovered the 800 hours of footage and used it to create an entirely new program.

Introductions, explanations, and wrap-ups from Mr. Kurtis, best known as host in the mid-'80s of ``The CBS Morning News,'' were spliced into the fabric on location as well as in the studio.

The result at first seems slow-paced by today's 50-seconds-per-sound-bite standard, but after a while the program's visual elements take hold to provide an effective setting in which to digest the astounding facts presented.

(A companion book, with the same high standard of photography and graphics, is available from Gallery Books, 112 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.)

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