Lost Worlds, one of my favorite series on The History Channel, comes to DVD in a four-disc box set that's perfect viewing for history buffs and casual viewers alike. Each episode of Lost Worlds focuses on a particular empire or civilization, and brings it to life for the viewer by digitally recreating its buildings and cities from today's remnants. Believing that how a civilization built an edifice or city - and why - is key to actually understanding that civilization, Lost Worlds takes a team of scientists, researchers, and engineers (the personnel varies from episode to episode), and goes to these far-flung places on the globe, where they scour historical documents, perform scientific studies such as laser-guided mapping, and get their hands dirty with actual excavations, to gather the information needed to computer-generate as accurate a picture of these "lost worlds" as possible.
Aiding the computer-generated images are beautifully shot recreations of key historical moments from these civilizations, which elevate what could be just "talking heads" lectures, into exciting, vibrant mini-movies. Just as an example, the episode The Real Dracula explores the life and horrendous exploits of Vlad the Impaler, the Romanian prince who was the true inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. A team of experts travel to the remote area of Transylvania (which still looks marvelously creepy), and visually inspect the remnants of Dracula's castles and fortresses. Throughout the episode, gorgeously shot recreations illustrate some of Vlad's more spectacular moments, while the experts interpret the strategies and military usefulness of his fortifications, as they related to the expansion of his empire. As each area is explored, a building important to that expansion is mapped and studied, and then rendered on-screen, with the help of computer graphics, as it looked during Vlad's time.
The computer graphic images and animation are flawlessly inserted into the contemporary shots of these locales. These aren't crude "blueprint" quality drawings matted over live-action shots. They're perfectly matched in color and lighting, with the "before" and "after" shots indistinguishable from each other. It's an amazingly tangible, almost tactile method of illustrating a history lesson, and with the inclusion of the filmed historical recreations, interviews with the experts, and archival illustrations and art work further illuminating the stories, Lost Worlds is one of those rare TV documentaries that's not only enlightening, but also immensely entertaining.
Here are the 12, one hour episodes included on the four-disc, slim case box set of Lost Worlds:
For two hundred years, these warrior monks battled for the Holy Land with both force and prayer. As the Templar's city of Tortosa is rebuilt, archaeologists unveil the secrets of their headquarters at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and recreate their mysterious initiation rites in a London church.
From Herod's Temple Mount to the Via Dolorosa, visit the places where Jesus walked, preached, and suffered. Tour Jerusalem's network of aqueducts and tunnels that once accommodated vast numbers of pilgrims, and discover the dazzling secrets of the Holy Sanctuary.
The First Christians
Certain cities were central to Christianity's growth from a small band of disciples to a powerful and growing religious movement. Tarsus and Ephesus, integral to the story of St. Paul, are here rebuilt in detail, and the mysterious community of cavedwellers at Cappadocia is explored where some of the earliest Christian churches are revealed.
Archeologists have posited a radical new theory connecting the remains of a Cretan temple found beneath thousands of tons of ash to the legendary lost city of Atlantis. At last, thanks to scientific technology and historical evidence, the mythical, beautiful Atlantis rises again.
Ramses' Egyptian Empire
Ramses II, the most powerful of all the pharaohs, is known primarily for his great monuments, which are in ruins today. Through audacious feats of engineering, Karnak and the temple at Abu Simbel became wonders of the ancient world -- today, they're virtually recreated in all their original stunning glory.
Athens - Ancient Supercity
In the 5th century B.C., Pericles developed Athens into a city full of temples, marketplaces, and magnificent civic buildings. But his ambition would also lead to Athens' destruction. Using modern technology, ancient Athens is recreated in all its glory, showing the city's fortifications, the Parthenon, and the Senate as they once were.
Secret Cities of the A-Bomb
In the United States' rush to build the first atomic weapon, three brand new secret cities were built, thus creating the largest and most modern buildings in the world, all completed under the highest security. Visit these sites and discover the hidden world of the Manhattan Project.
Hitler planned to rebuild Germany, creating civic buildings and monuments that would place his Third Reich alongside Greece and Rome. Based on the ruins of buildings he began and on the unexecuted plans of his architect Albert Speer, this world is brought to life for the first time.
Churchill's Secret Bunkers
The network of bunkers built below London during WWII is revealed, its lost world virtually rebuilt. A city beneath a city, these tunnels included the underground command center from which the Battle of Britain was coordinated, and the chambers built to withstand the most deadly weapons in the Nazi arsenal.
The Real Dracula
The Romanian prince known to the world as Dracula left an enduring legacy...and not just a bloody legend. From the city that would become his country's capital to one of Eastern Europe's most breath-taking mountaintop castles, Dracula's world is miraculously revived.
At the end of the 13th century, William Wallace, popularly known as Braveheart, became a Scottish symbol of patriotism and survival. Travel back 700 years to rediscover the sophisticated culture Braveheart died to protect. Also, see the Castle of Lanark and Stirling Bridge restored and their importance explained.
Five thousand years ago, before the pyramids of Egypt were built, the pagan people of the British Isles were creating some of the greatest monuments of the ancient world. From the Orkney Islands to Stonehenge, their accomplishments are recreated and their villages brought to life.
The non-anamorphic, 1.78:1 widescreen video image for Lost Worlds is excellent, with sharp, bright colors and true blacks.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo soundtrack is clear and quite strong. There are no subtitles or close-captioning options.
Included as an extra is the pilot episode for Lost Worlds, called Palenque, detailing the lost Mayan city and it's resurrection with the aid of computer graphics. This pilot episode plays a little differently than the regular series shows, with improvements made to the pace and tone of the subsequent episodes.
I'm an unabashed fan of The History Channel, but you don't have to be to enjoy Lost Worlds. It's a fascinating look at the civic and military engineering feats of various "lost" civilizations, and the impact those buildings and cities had on the promotion and defense of those cultures. It's a particularly good show for young adults who may want a break from the staid history lessons they get in school. Colorful, informative, and fast-moving, Lost Worlds is a winner. I highly recommend the Lost Worlds box set.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.