In recent years I have noticed my tastes changing in terms of what I enjoy watching and what I find entertaining. It used to be that documentaries and stuff found on the History Channel would bore me to tears but quite honestly it's one of my most watch channels right now. There are so many good documentaries and series on the channel now and they are mostly successful because they are entertaining and educational.
One of the biggest success stories to come from The History Channel is Modern Marvels. This program got its start way back in 1995 and since then it has enjoyed over 500 episodes and shows no sign of stopping. It's a virtual juggernaut of the technical aspects of human achievement and with such a broad range of topics you'd be hard-pressed not to find something that tickled your fancy. This show covers virtually everything from A to Z that you could think of but for such a massive show to be released on DVD the process and price would be daunting. In an effort to appeal to fans and gain a new audience A&E has recently released a "Best of" collection with 14 discs and 44 episodes.
Given the size of this release you can rest assured that the MSRP definitely makes it a high ticket item. Still, the price is negligible when you consider that it works out to less than nine dollars a disc. What you really should be asking yourself is whether or not you have any of the prior Modern Marvel DVDs in your collection. You'll definitely want to look through what you have because many of those releases are reissued here. Likewise the recently released Engineering Disasters collection is packed in with the "Best of" set as well, which also increases the chances of a double dip. It's kind of confusing how both sets would come out at roughly the same time and why five of the fourteen discs would be taken up by the exact same episodes.
Whatever the case Engineering Disasters is a very viable component of the Modern Marvels puzzle. While these DVDs start out with episode four, the spin-off actually originated way back in 1999. It wasn't until 2003's fourth outing that the concept really took off and became a staple of the program. That's where the first five discs come in as it chronicles episodes four through twenty with the New Orleans special included for good measure.
If you have never seen the show then you should know that each episode is broken up by a variety of topics. The level of detail surrounding each item is relatively light though in many cases these disasters could have received their own documentary with the amount of history surrounding them. What this show does is present an overview of each disaster with an introduction to it, a cause, and in most cases, an aftermath. While most items are served well by the supplied information there are many that I wish received more fleshing out.
As evidence of what an episode of Engineering Disasters could be like if it had more time the New Orleans feature stands out the most in this collection. We all know what happened in August of 2005 and how devastating Katrina truly was, but how many actually understand the science behind what happened? The levees broke down with pounding 15-foot storm surges, bridges collapsed, streets flooded, and so many people were left homeless or dead. Each disaster on this set rings through with its own level of tragedy but New Orleans is the most recent of which to be featured in this set and thusly, the most fresh in our minds.
Other disasters included here include the fire at the MGM Grand Hotel, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Union Carbide explosion, the toxic waste-filled Love Canal, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, and Chicago's floods. Throughout it all there are issues with fires, floods, planes, nuclear meltdowns, and building inadequacies. Another recent even comes from 9/11 where Engineering Disasters takes a look at the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7.
After disc five Modern Marvels starts to show the regular content and it becomes much more interesting in my opinion. With each of these episodes taking a look at a specific topic it allows for quite a lot of information and room for discussion that Engineering Disasters didn't have. The sixth disc is a good example of that as the three episodes included feature "Racetrack Tech", "The Autobahn", and "The F-14". I found the Autobahn episode the most intriguing here as it brought in a lot of Germany's history and how it connected to Nazi Germany during World War II. This particular episode not only focused on that but it also brought us back to modern day glimpses of the roadway and even shows how to drive on it.
Disc seven brings about more destruction oriented content with "The Manhattan Project", "D-Day Tech", and "Bullets". The first atomic bomb detonation was interesting but that's just a singular event so it was nice how the topic was taken to much broader angles to incorporate nuclear weapons in general in there. The D-Day focus was more historical than technical but there was a nice look at the weaponry that helped bring down Hitler's forces. Likewise the focus on bullets and other weaponry is also intriguing but the topic is a little broader.
Taking a breather from destructive technology comes some interesting material in the form of "Space Shuttle Columbia", "ET Tech", and "Rubber". The Columbia episode could have almost been an Engineering Disasters episode considering it focuses on the disintegration of the space shuttle on February 1, 2003. This feature was interesting because it took a look at the project from the very beginning up to the end and beyond. If you were ever curious about Columbia and what happened beyond news headlines this is definitely an episode to check out. Keeping up with the space theme is the ET aspect of sending probes out into space and how stuff that searches the surfaces of other planets actually works. And finally the rubber episode is very similar to the bullet one as it examines the plant that has proven to be so fundamental in our every day life.
Probably the most entertaining disc out of this collection is the ninth which features "High Tech Sex", "James Bond Gadgets", and "Bathroom Tech". Obviously the sex episode is one to go to as it examines all manner of sexual gadgets from early points in history to current technology. Considering this is a family program the content doesn't get too racy though and there's plenty of stuff that most likely isn't brought up. As a Bond fan I loved the gadgets episode especially because of the special looks at items used by 007 and how they work in the real world. From jet packs to tiny aircraft and super-powered speedboats there's a lot that actually works in real life.
The tenth disc in the set focuses on food somewhat with "Distilleries", "Harvesting", and "Candy" being the subjects of discussion. All three were interesting and very similar as each episode took a look at the history of the subject and showed the various forms of evolution. The next disc also keeps the themed content going with buildings being the focal point. "The Sears Tower", "The Chrysler Building", and "Twin Towers of the East" are the three episodes that you'll find.
The subject matter moves from buildings to bridges with the eleventh disc thanks to "New York Bridges", "George Washington Bridge", and "Bridges". Out of these three the final episode feels the least compelling as it looks at the construction of bridges as a whole. I rather like Modern Marvels when it's more focused on a specific topic so the first two episodes here definitely offer the most information and entertainment value. Keeping the bridge theme going onto the twelfth disc is "The World's Longest Bridge" which features the Japanese goliath and "Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel". Out of the four final episodes there are two more bridge (or bridge-like) outings with "Overseas Highway" and "The Mackinac Bridge". The other two episodes look at "Lighthouses" and "Quarries".
All in all The Best of Modern Marvels is a fantastic look at an epic show for The History Channel. This is an entertaining series with a very devoted following. The nice thing is that the content is so varied you don't need to have prior knowledge of the show in order to appreciate it. It's easily accessible and appropriate for the whole family (though the sex episode toes that line).
If you're a Modern Marvels fan and own some of the other releases on DVD then chances are very good that many of these titles are already in your collection. I'm sure several of you probably have the Bond Gadgets or at least some of the Engineering Disasters. With that being said fans, newcomers, and those who haven't invested in this series on DVD will definitely want to check this out. Sure the price tag is a little high but when you consider that includes 44 episodes, over 35 hours of run time, and 14 discs that sticker shock lessens significantly.
After checking out Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters prior to The Best of I was expecting a very similar experience as far as the video quality was concerned. With a full frame aspect ratio and quality that mirrors the show's broadcast each of the fourteen DVDs here proved to be just what I was anticipating. Like most documentary shows this one offers a mix of stock footage and finely filmed interviews in a prepped setting. The result is a solid looking series without a lot of frills.
Don't come to these DVDs expecting high end output and HD recordings and you won't be disappointed. The video is clean with only a little grain, there is some edge enhancement, and the picture has a tendency to be soft. With that being said the look of this show is very appropriate for the content and on par with other History Channel releases on DVD.
The Best of Modern Marvels comes with a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo presentation that once again lives up to expectations. The quality is relatively flat but on par with what you'd hear from the broadcast of the show. This being an educational/documentary type series there really isn't a need for something more robust or something with a better sense of immersion so the audio is adequate enough for the material. The narration is solid enough with an appropriate amount of clarity and bass and the interview segments have enough depth on the front channel.
Once again there are no bonus features available for these DVDs. It's not entirely surprising considering most documentary shows tend to simply stick more episodes on discs rather than actual features. This isn't the style of show that could really offer a behind the scenes featurette or commentary but I'm sure some informational or textual content could have been supplied somewhere in the mix. Alas the discs are bare to the bone.
The Best of Modern Marvels doesn't "quite" live up to its namesake and I have seen several episodes of the program that I would deem more worthy of a "best of" collection. You can't always get what you want but at least what's here on these 14 discs is certainly good, if not great overall. The inclusion of Engineering Disasters will please those who didn't pick up the separate release and the other 27 episodes definitely entertain. Despite the potential for double dipping this is a solid DVD collection with a hefty amount of Modern Marvels that is sure to please any viewer. Here's to hoping A&E pulls another 44 episodes together for a second collection! Highly Recommended
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