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Top 10 Documentary Mini Series

VO: Dan Paradis
Script written by David MacIntyre. These mini-series were so good, you’ll wish they were even longer. In this video, WatchMojo.com counts down our picks for the top 10 documentary mini series. For this list, we’re focusing on documentaries that were split into several different episodes that ran over a specific period of time, rather than feature-length one-parter docs. Whether it's about rare animals or mind-blowing science, these documentaries will captivate you. Be sure to also check out our list of the top 10 Rock and Roll Documentaries. Special thanks to our user jkellis for submitting the idea on our Suggest Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Script written by David MacIntyre.

Top 10 Documentary Mini-Series


These mini-series were so good, you’ll wish they were even longer. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down the top 10 documentary mini-series.

For this list, we’re focusing on documentaries that were split into several different episodes that ran over a specific period of time, rather than feature-length one-parter docs.

#10: “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” (1980)

If you want to look at science in a completely different way, look no further than this 13-part series. Originally running from September to December 1980, this mini-series shows the late, great science communicator Carl Sagan giving us a history lesson on many different aspects of science, from astrology to the human brain to climate change, all tied together with groundbreaking effects and a killer soundtrack. The result was one of the most-watched public TV series ever, with 500 million people watching it around the world, and a 2014 reboot hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

#9: “The Beatles Anthology” (1995)

If there’s any band that deserves a huge anthology dedicated to them, it’s the Fab Four. Accompanied by albums, a book and two new songs, the anthology takes us from John, Paul, George and Ringo’s childhoods all the way to their breakup in 1970. An in-depth look into the best and worst times in the Beatles’ history, with dialogue coming from interviews with the band members themselves, the anthology commemorates of a successful career. Plus, we also hear their best songs at different points throughout the series, making this one a practice in nostalgia as well.

#8: “The Blue Planet” (2001)

One of several mini-series to be narrated by David Attenborough, “The Blue Planet” takes us on a one-of-a-kind journey through the world’s oceans, teaching us about their histories and taking us through unexplored underwater recesses. Through eight episodes, we see underwater creatures from places like South Africa, Australia and the Arctic, and are shown never-before-seen animals and behaviors from the depths of the ocean. Utilizing almost 200 filming locations and taking almost five-years to complete, “The Blue Planet” ended up winning multiple Emmys and spawned the 2003 theatrical documentary “Deep Blue.”

#7: “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” (1995)

Who better to take us on a trip through some of the best movies ever made than one of the most acclaimed directors ever? Grouping some of his favorite movies based on the type of director who brought them to life, director and film historian Martin Scorsese gives the viewer a look at the best movies from genres like silent films, westerns, film noirs and even musicals, in a three-part mini-series that lasts almost four hours. Speaking as a fan and a filmmaker, Scorsese explains how the movies influenced the industry, and his own filmmaking.

#6: “Walking with Dinosaurs” (1999)

Paving the way for a franchise that included miniseries about “Walking with Beasts,” “Cavemen” and “Monsters,” as well as a feature-length film in 2013, this mini-series used CGI, animatronics and special-effects to recreate how dinosaurs lived and behaved in the Mesozoic era – and the result was more like “Jurassic Park” than you’d expect from a TV documentary, mimicking nature docs by eliminating talking head interviews. What’s even crazier is that this BBC production was the most expensive documentary series per minute ever made, according to the Guinness World Book of World Records – and we’d say it was worth it.

#5: “The Civil War” (1990)

Famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has made several celebrated documentaries for PBS, and this one in particular became the channel’s most-watched show to that point, with about 40-million tuning into its first broadcast. With nine episodes aired over five straight nights, “The Civil War” showed Burns’ trademark use of archival photos of the war, combined with a musical soundtrack, narration, interviews and actor recreations of significant historical figures. Burns’ documentary proved so successful with the American public, even then-President George H.W. Bush was a fan.

#4: “North America” (2013)

Narrated by Tom Selleck and internally produced by the Discovery Channel, this mini-series is a feast for the senses, and is a virtual tour of all the nature that North and Central America have to offer. In the first five episodes, we’re taken to places the Canadian Prairies, the Appalachian Mountains and even Costa Rica where we see incredible landscape shots as well as the behavior of the wildlife and underwater life throughout the continent. Beautiful and informative, this series turns the camera towards a continent many call home but few truly stop to admire.

#3: “Jazz” (2001)

Over a decade after his extremely successful mini-series “The Civil War,” Ken Burns brought another successful documentary to PBS. This time, he focused on the history of American jazz music, told through interviews with some of the genre’s most significant personalities and illustrated with Burns’ signature use of archive photos. This mini-series showed us the great artists, records and jazz styles that popped up over the genre’s timeline, but also touched on some of the most controversial aspects of its history – more specifically, racial segregation and drug use.

#2: “The World at War” (1973-74)

An expensive undertaking that cost a record £900,000, the oldest mini-series on this list is also the longest, with 26 episodes; but it’s a series that earned enough praise to justify its inclusion. Created in Britain but told from the point-of-view of interviewees who’d been there and witnessed the events first-hand, “The World at War” is a detailed historical account of WWII. Taking us from the rise of the Nazi party in Germany all the way to the aftermath of the war, Isaacs’ expensive and celebrated work gives us a comprehensive look of one of most world-changing events ever.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

- “Baseball” (1994)

- “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (2011)

- “Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark” (1969)

- “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” (1968-75)

- “Wild Canada” (2014)

#1: “Planet Earth” (2006)

The first BBC nature doc filmed in crisp and clear high-definition, this mini-series was the priciest documentary of its kind ever to have been made for the British Broadcasting Corporation. A follow-up to David Attenborough’s “The Blue Planet,” this effort focused less on underwater worlds and more on general nature, educating the public on the Earth and its wildlife with sublimely filmed footage – and smashing ratings records in the process. So successful it prompted the 2007 feature film version “Earth,” as well as follow-up series like “Frozen Planet” and “Human Planet,” “Planet Earth” was a groundbreaker in the medium that took five-years to make.

Do you agree with our list? What’s your all-time favorite documentary mini-series? With new top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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