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TV REVIEW

'Galapagos: Beyond Darwin' Follows in His Footsteps

August 17, 1996|JOEL GREENBERG | TIMES SCIENCE EDITOR

Suppose you could use Einstein's brain to think about relativity; or view the solar system through the eyes of Copernicus.

Then, you might get some idea of how biologists feel when they journey to the Galapagos Islands. It is on these volcanic outcrops in the Pacific where researchers are able to view nature essentially as it was when Charles Darwin became the first scientist to set foot there in 1835.

What Darwin observed, of course, led to his seminal treatise on the theory of evolution, "On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection," in 1859.

"It is the holy land to a biologist," intones Roscoe Lee Browne, who narrates--rather solemnly--"Galapagos: Beyond Darwin," Sunday on the Discovery Channel.

*

If Darwin had the super-duper technology available to the Discovery Channel's expedition team, he might have nailed down this evolution business in a few days rather than a quarter century. Nevertheless, it is the knowledge that Darwin walked these very same beaches and knelt behind the very same bushes that makes this show so exciting.

That, plus the breathtaking wildlife--from giant tortoises (Galapagos means tortoises) to the blindingly orange-yellow iguanas--render this a worthwhile trip for the viewer. Moreover, it is a part of the Galapagos that Darwin never got to explore--the deep waters surrounding the islands--that makes for perhaps the most spectacular footage.

The voyage of the high-tech R/V Seward Johnson and its state-of-the-art submarine, the Johnson Sea-Link, provides a close-up look at spectacular marine life seen nowhere else on Earth (it is estimated that as many as a third of Galapagos land and water species are unique to those islands).

The expedition is a slick production, financed by the Discovery Channel and filmed by Al Giddings, whose credits include films such as "The Deep," "The Abyss" and a couple of James Bond movies. While the result is pictorially pleasing, "Galapagos: Beyond Darwin" is at least a half hour too long and lacks the edge of uncertainty found in many documentaries. Its researchers seem a little too scripted and (I never thought I'd say this about scientists) articulate.

But all is forgiven when the nonhumans grab the screen time. The sight of the regal giant tortoises, gliding majestically as they survey (and munch on) their home turf, is, by itself, enough to recommend this trip to these unique islands.

* "Galapagos: Beyond Darwin" will be shown Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.

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