When the History Channel debuted on television it was something unique. Sure most every television channel out there offered up some historical documentary but this one in particular devoted its broadcast solely to looking at the past. Rather than beat us over the head with one sitcom or crime drama after another they began by showcasing thought-provoking and informative series that aimed to capture the imagination and teach the viewer something in the process. One of their recent success stories is Engineering an Empire which began airing last year.
Over time the show has released DVDs which have been slowly trickling into stores with single episode offerings. For those of us who want a complete collection of the shows we watch the History Channel has compiled the entire series into one box which spans six discs. This set offers a comprehensive look at our civilization's history from an imaginative perspective. If you appreciate that kind of thing then you'll definitely want to make sure this collection appears on your radar.
Hosted by Peter Weller (yes, of Robocop fame), each of the fourteen episodes in Engineering an Empire take a look at different points in our history. With a great deal of information the show skews the documentary from typical historical facts. Rather than bore us with details about the little things or movements within a society the series aims to focus on the engineering standpoint of things. The technical marvels and innovations from the time period take the center stage and though there are plenty of historical details it's the technology that stands front and center.
The first disc in this set has three episodes which start things off nicely and really highlight what the show is all about. The premiere episodes here begins with Greece and spends a fair amount of time talking about the stuff you'd expect. The Parthenon and the aqueduct take the center stage for a bit of the discussion about Greece but there is plenty of room for talk about the wartime innovations all the way to Agamemnon's Tomb. Keeping up with the Greek trend the second episode in the set discusses the Age of Alexander. This one is essentially a continuation of the first with more innovative details leading up to Alexander's quest through Persia and Egypt. In both cases there are a lot of historical facts scattered in between the technological breakthroughs.
The Aztecs are up after the Greeks and we learn some of the engineering details brought about by the cruel and barbaric culture. Of course everyone knows that the Aztecs essentially bathed themselves in blood and human sacrifice but did you know that they created a city on the water? It wasn't quite Atlantis but this metropolis looks like it was a thing of beauty before the Spaniards decided to bring it down. I must admit to not knowing much about the Aztecs (apart from the blood and sacrifice thing) prior to coming to this documentary. Thusly I found it particularly informative and interesting.
The second DVD in this set offers three more episodes to peruse. The disc starts out with Rome's enemy Carthage and moves onto the far more interesting (in my opinion at least) China episode. This particular episode showcased a large section of China's history and its many dynasties. From the formation of armies to the Great Wall and even the tomb filled with famous terracotta statues. There were plenty of impressive feats that came from China's many dynasties and Engineering an Empire captures a nice little snapshot of them. To be fair there is so much content that it's hard to cram it into one episode but they do a decent enough job of featuring the basics.
After Carthage and China is Russia's turn to be featured as an empire with technological marvels. Back in the day, Russia's empire spanned 1/6th of the world's landmass which is an achievement within itself. Add to that the Moscow Kremlin, St. Petersburg, and the Trans-Siberian railroad and you have plenty of reasons for Russia to be featured on this program. This world power's history is as romantic as it is impressive and though it didn't quite capture my attention as much as some of the other episodes here I still found it informative.
Following in Russia's footsteps, Engineering an Empire moves onto the third disc with Britain, the Persians, and the Mayans. Each of these episodes was interesting in their own right. Britain in particular talked about the global reach of the empire in its height and discussed some of the biggies like their naval fleet and Westminster Abby. The Persian Empire is something of a mystery when compared to the rest that you'll find in this collection. With an emphasis on cultural and religious tolerance it carved a place for itself in the world. Then again their war with Greece helped put them on the map and for that matter so did their creation of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The fourth DVD features Napoleon, the Byzantines, and Da Vinci's World. Each of these episodes follows in line with what we have come to expect from Engineering an Empire. In each instance there are historical and technological facts littered in with narrative and recreated videos that depict various acts. These episodes pale in comparison when stacked up to the big hitters here such as Egypt and Rome; which are featured on their own discs.
If you picked up the previous Engineering an Empire set then you're missing out on Egypt and Rome unless you went out and purchased the single disc releases. Both of these episodes clock in at over 90 minutes a piece because, let's face it, when it comes to engineering there's a lot of ground to cover. From Egypt's pyramids, temples, and elaborate death rituals to Rome's technological masterpieces such as the aqueducts, Pantheon, and Hadrian's Wall.
Each of the episodes featured in Engineering an Empire are thoughtful, insightful, and entertaining. Peter Weller displays a true passion for history and he seems well-versed in the subject matter. His presence goes well beyond the typical "actor doing this documentary" thing and he really adds a lot of energy to the program. Granted Weller only appears at the points where the topic changes and with the beginning and ending of each episode. In between those bits the show is narrated in typical History Channel fashion but remains informative and it never gets dull.
If you're a history buff or just want to watch a good documentary series Engineering an Empire is definitely worth the price of admission. There's a lot of stuff packed into these episodes and the focus on technological achievements more than historical helps give the program a unique voice. I enjoyed every episode here though a few such as Rome, Egypt, China, and the Aztecs stood above the rest. I hope the History Channel revisits this series in the future but until then we'll just have to make do with this DVD collection.
Engineering an Empire is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. The picture quality is very crisp with a nice color palette, good contrast, and some sharp detail. There are a few moments throughout where grain does pop up but these are minimal at best. Given the structure of the program there are a few different scenes that play out and each of them maintains the show's quality. Whether it's Peter Weller talking about an empire, acted out footage, or CGI sequences the series looks stunning in most instances.
The video quality of Engineering an Empire impresses but the audio feels lacking somewhat. The 2.0 stereo presentation displays the content appropriately since a historical documentary doesn't really need 5.1 support to be a success. However, this lack of immersion does make for a flat presence on the soundstage. Despite the lackluster output the quality here is clean and sharp with no distortion or dropout. No subtitles are included.
In addition to the fourteen episodes and 12 and a half hour runtime there are a few bonus features to browse through. The fourth disc in the set offers a behind the scenes that showcases Peter Weller talking on a couple of subjects. For the most part these bits involve Weller discussing other aspects of the show with professionals in the field. The featurette does go on to show some candid moments with Weller and some of the behind the camera crew as their out on location.
The fifth discs in the collection features a promotional video for the Rome episode and it offers some behind the scenes glimpses and talking heads. Some of the people that take part in the reenacted sequences are interviewed as well. It's mostly fluff material but its twenty minutes in length and does have some points of interest for fans of the series. And finally the last DVD in the set houses the remainder of the bonus content. The first is a look behind the scenes of Egypt but mainly it focuses on Peter Weller's involvement with the show. He talks at length about his life as a teacher and professor at Syracuse University which is interesting because for the most part we only know him as an actor.
Some information about this episode from the director's point of view is provided in another feature as well. There is some great content here and one of my favorite bits was when they talked about the lights blowing a fuse while they were inside of a pyramid. Weller grabs a flashlight and proceeds to entertain with some routine for ten minutes until the lights come back on. I can't imagine how frightening that must have been being so many feet below ground in a tomb and then having the world around you go pitch black. And finally there is a question and answer video all about Egypt.
Engineering an Empire was a fantastic documentary program with insightful content and a wonderful hosting job by Peter Weller. Each episode exudes a certain energy that few other history oriented programs offer. If you're fascinated by things such as the Seven Wonders of the World, how the pyramids were built, and all of those technological achievements of the era that boggle the mind then this is a show for you. Engineering an Empire comes highly recommended.
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