Given the ongoing fracas in American education regarding the teaching of evolution in schools, it's hard not to look at Your Inner Fish as PBS’s quiet mic-drop entry into the fray. You want proof of evolution? Here’s three hours of proof. And if you can get past the forcibly folksy approach to the early minutes (“Fish have backbones, just like you and me!”), which feel designed for a classroom, it’s pretty interesting proof. Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, author of the eponymous book, guides us through three episodes of evolutionary shift using elegant illustrations and absurdly clunky Syfy-leftover CGI along a spiraling Tree Of Life, focused not just on momentary leaps, but the slow burn of 500 million years.
But as the field gets increasingly crowded, it’s important to make a documentary stand out, which means we’re in for tweaks to structure and form as PBS tries to evoke a quasi-biography reality-show alongside the science. There’s the faintest whiff of Guy Fieri in Shubin making chitchat about descended testicles with a fishmonger and explaining a woman running in a bikini as an example of skin as a waterproof organ. The author hovers at home with his kids, and some halfhearted fossil-searching is framed like a special episode of Diggers. It also occasionally creates a nesting-doll narration, as Shubin has the unenviable task of narrating himself looking at something in a quasi-reenactment, then recounting to the camera what happened the first time he was there. Luckily, occasional editorial clunker aside, Shubin’s an engaging host. He’s at his most charismatic and compelling when laying out the facts, sitting behind a pair of brains to point out their similar structures with the glee of a detective laying out the big reveal, but even in the stagier segments there’s unstudied enthusiasm, as when a colleague determines that a rock he’s found is actually an early shaped tool (“Oh yeah! The striation!”).
And it’s hard not to catch a little of that enthusiasm. From the vestigial yolk sacs in human gestation to fossils of early amphibians whose proto-hand bone structure allowed them to seek safety on land, the show builds a quietly confident case for the combination of little mutations and lots of time that evolution’s made of. The collection of animals who lived on the reptile-to-mammal cusp make for a particularly interesting examination of fossilized whisker-pits, underground burrows, and mass extinction as the luckiest thing that ever happened to the little furry beasts of the world. And the examinations themselves can be as interesting as their conclusions: there’s some cringe-inducing discussion of teeth as a skin organ while we watch skin tissue in a petri dish become a molar, and several examples of 3D printing to make copies of fossils that can stand up to harsh treatments. There’s even the occasional eyebrow-raiser (like the trip to the bowels of the Cleveland Natural History Museum, packed to the ceiling with skeletons). And there’s a refreshing honesty about animal-based research, as Shubin mentions offhand that the tiny opossums we see during discussion of embryonic development are euthanized in order to study their skeletons, a fact of scientific study up for a debate of its own but often glossed over. Things go slightly better for the monkey whose colorblindness was corrected by turning on the necessary opsin gene—but to Shubin, the most amazing result isn't the turning-on of a gene at will so much as the monkey’s ability to process the influx of new signals, as the scientists exchange wondering glances: “The brain was already ready, somehow.”
And that sense of wonder gets at what’s happening under the surface of Your Inner Fish. For the series to work beyond its basic premise and the string of interesting facts, there has to be a narrative beneath the obvious. For many nature documentaries, that narrative is usually the crushing realization that we’re watching animals and landscapes whose heyday has already gone, and that this will soon be archival footage of something that used to exist. In Your Inner Fish, the point isn’t just that the depth and breadth of the fossil record is a conclusive case for evolution—that case is, after this, effectively closed. Instead, with its museum basements full of skeleton drawers and multiple visits to far-flung dig sites, the series feels (much as with Cosmos) like a case for the worth of scientific study in and of itself. The parade of paleontologists and anatomists who appear tend to have big-name discoveries under their belts (Lucy and Ardi) or suitably cool research, and builds an impression of the many people whose work had to coalesce to connect data points into a story. When a clunky CGI Lucy appears at a fireside near series’ end, looking around like the saddest party guest, this vast collective knowledge is what she’s meant to be yearning for.
While Shubin’s a nimble guide, there’s a little too much folksy-pop production value in his way for that narrative to quite take hold amid the errata. Still, when Shubin’s eyes light up at the sight of baby monkeys and sea worms alike, it’s clear that he means what he says when he talks about the wondrous interconnectedness of life. And Your Inner Fish is, at heart, that same enthusiasm on a grand scale: occasionally clunky, but with something to say that's probably worth a listen.