National Geographic's One Strange Rock will change your view of Earth forever

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Monday, March 26, 2018

Photo Credit: NASA

One of the hottest topics in astronomy today is the search for and study of exoplanets. Since the confirmation in 1992 that our solar system is not unique in the universe, astronomers have striven to find more exotic, more difficult-to-see, and, simply put, more exoplanets. This search is extremely important, because it helps us answer the question of how we got here — how our solar system formed, how our planets were born, and how they have evolved (and will evolve) over time.

But amid the excitement and pressure of such a search, and particularly the quest to determine whether any of these extrasolar worlds might be capable of sustaining life or habitable for Earth-like beings, we often forget that there is one planet we absolutely know can provide the ingredients necessary for life, as well as a host of other amazing features we have yet to see anywhere else: Earth.

National Geographic’s 10-part series One Strange Rock changes all that, presenting Earth as a fascinating, vibrant, and living place where conditions have all converged in just the right ways to produce everything from simplistic microbes to complex human beings. The series, by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and producer Jane Root, is hosted by Will Smith and tells Earth’s extraordinary story from the viewpoint of some of the elite few who have ever left the world to float above it: a group of astronauts that includes Mae Jemison, Chris Hadfield, Peggy Whitson, and Jerry Linenger.

Making One Strange Rock

I recently spoke with showrunner Arif Nurohamed, whose filmmaking experience includes Richard Hammond Builds a Planet and Earth’s Natural Wonders. For Nurohamed, One Strange Rock offered an amazing opportunity to take a look at the bigger picture of our planet, linking in the narratives of astronauts who have seen our planet from above as an engaging and emotional vehicle that connects viewers to the planet that pulses beneath our feet. “The heart of it is the astronauts,” he says: They are that vital link between the small and the large, the everyday and the extraordinary.

Scientists trek through a landscape littered with literal lakes of acid to study tiny lifeforms that exist without oxygen. // Photo Credit: National Geographic

Nurohamed further emphasized that the show became the final product you’ll see through the humanity, the authenticity, and the sincerity of all the people who speak for our planet. He spoke highly of Will Smith’s role as host, particularly the intelligence, charm, and lightness he brings to the series. Smith serves as a guide and a conduit, helping to link you as a first-time viewer to the fantastic sights you’ve never imagined could come from your very own planet. Earth is no longer the mundane dirt beneath your feet or that partly-cloudy sky that many of us in the Northern Hemisphere are ready to be rid of as spring finally arrives — instead, it is a colorful, mysterious, astounding, and sometimes frightening and fragile place that will jump off the screen and into your heart.

And that’s the point — “You’re going to see the world as you’ve never seen it before,” Nurohamed says, describing the show as a “visual kaleidoscope” that he wants viewers to feast on, taking them to places that connect to their gut, rather than their brain. Ultimately, “We want people to love their planet and be awed by their planet,” Nurohamed says. “This is not a plea,” he adds, but a chance to “unpack complex systems and the story of how life came to be.” Even so, there is a message of frailty, of uniqueness, and these are as genuine as they are true. Earth is the only planet of its kind we have ever found, and it is our only home. But, says Nurohamed, the purpose of the show is first and foremost to show how our complex world came to be, and how it has changed and continues to change. “First you have to fall in love with the planet, and then you can save it,” he says.

Exploring the rock

So, what will you see? One Strange Rock will ultimately take you on a journey of a million miles, through 45 countries and six continents (and into space). To get these stunning shots, the team often developed innovative and original solutions to the filmmaking challenges in their path when trying to capture our planet’s most awe-inspiring features.

Diatoms bloom in the ocean, as seen from space. // Photo Credit: NASA

Film crews trekked into crystal caves with water so pure that it’s the standard used for laboratory controls in purity testing. The team spent several days inside the caves, following strict sterilization requirements and ensure nothing from the outside was left behind — including both trash and biological waste.

The team also traveled to the erupting lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo, taking a nine-hour trek to the crater’s rim as red-hot, radioactive lava spewed from an active vent. “We’ll be sleeping with gas masks on,” says the expedition leader, as they stand at the crater rim and overlook a moving river of molten rock.

On the other end of the spectrum is footage taken 250 miles above our planet, including theatrical-quality shots from the International Space Station, captured by European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli and American astronaut Peggy Whitson. Nespoli spent several weeks with Aronofsky prior to launch, learning how to use a high-quality camera and implement common cinematography techniques to capture the perfect shots of Whitson for use in the series, offering viewers a first-time look at space and the planet below through an experienced filmmaker’s eye.

A perfectly calibrated home

“I am going to tell you about the most incredible place,” Will Smith says, as the first episode of One Strange Rock begins. “And you know what? You’re walking on it.”

Those lines truly encompass the heart and soul of the series, which seeks to show you our home as you’ve never seen it before. Each episode emphasizes how beautifully calibrated Earth is for life, how everyone and everything is interconnected — “all part of the same system,” Nurohamed says. And when you can see that, “You will look at the planet with new eyes.”

I had the opportunity to watch the series’ first three episodes before they air. “Gasp” tells the tale of the air we breathe, the oxygen-rich envelope that surrounds our planet and makes complex life possible at all. The episode travels from lakes of acid to the ISS and back again, focusing on the cycles of life and how our planet stays perfectly balanced to provide every breath you take.

Even the ancient impacts that shook our world have made it the perfect place for life that it is today. // Photo Credit: NASA

“Storm” explores the chaos and violence all around us: the “planetary body blows” that formed our planet within the solar nebula, the delivery of precious life-giving water to Earth, and the interwoven role our Moon plays in our everyday lives, from the duration of our day to the tides and the timing of our seasons.

“Shield” ties everything together, from smallest to largest, oldest to newest, to show how our world is perfect for us — but also how we evolved perfectly to fit our environment. Because, of course, not only is our planet perfectly calibrated for life, but we are a product of that calibration, and we rely on that delicate balance because it exists at all.

Throughout each episode, you’ll learn more about the planet you call home in a holistic, interconnected way. One Strange Rock doesn’t just throw out astounding facts one after another, but weaves each new discovery into an interconnected and ever-growing web that, when seen from above, contains everything we know, and everything we are.

“All these things that came before us and made this world possible,” says Smith, as “Shield” draws to a close. “Those chance events, those planetary systems that allow our little mote of dust to survive in a sunbeam.”

One Strange Rock premiers tonight, March 26, at 10pm Eastern/9pm Central on the National Geographic Channel. You can learn more or watch the trailer and several short clips on the National Geographic website.

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