The History Channel heads back to the drawing board yet again in hopes of finding a new gimmick to reel in viewers. This time around they go back to the time-tested topic of ancient warfare. However, times have changed at the History Channel and now it's standard for every new show to have a gimmick. "Battles BC" isn't merely a standard documentary series, instead, it aims to entertain audiences with re-creations of the battles "using a graphic style similar to '300'" (their words, not mine). Unfortunately, the gimmick cheapens the facts, which have already been covered in past programs, much more effectively.
I hold no bias towards edutainment done right, but edutainment that falls on its face can't escape my wrath. My personal philosophy as a professional educator is educational content should be built around facts and concepts first, not a slick presentation with content forced to conformity. "Battles BC" shows strong signs of being a case of the latter. Each of the eight episodes that comprise the first season focus on a military leader and a great battle that leader took part in. Familiar names like Hannibal and Alexander pop up, along with biblical figures such as David and Joshua.
A typical episode features relevant experts discussing aspects ranging from the specific battles to individual tools of war. The History Channel scores positive marks by taking time to even allow historians to discuss back-story relating to both sides of the conflicts, so the viewer has a brief understanding. In general, the interviewees are very insightful, but ultimately are undermined by the driving gimmick of the show: "300" style re-creations.
The term re-creation is used loosely as the end result is often no more than some very cheesy footage of warriors fighting, often reused many times throughout an episode without proper context. Take for instance the episode focusing on Ramses. A short piece of footage showing a chariot rider and archer in battle is reused well over a half dozen times. The constant rehashing of the same footage quickly shows how loosely the show is constructed and how cheap the production values are. I noticed very obviously on the third repetition of the same piece of footage that the arrow the archer was shooing was very poor CGI. The odd thing is it's just a shot of the archer launching the arrow, the camera never tracks its course, which begs the question of why didn't they shoot a real arrow? To make matters worse, the footage often conflicts with what the historians say. In the same episode a historian talks about a war chariot having a max speed of ten miles per hour. While he says this, the footage shows a chariot blazing at a speed at least double that.
The most frustrating aspect is previously mentioned lack of context. A re-creation should serve as a tool to illustrate history. Here it's just a mishmash of third-rate effects that often devolve to mere exploitation. In more than one episode a piece of footage ends with a kill, but not a realistic one, instead the creators opt to show the killing blow as a silhouette, likely to get away with such nonsense as spears through faces, apparently no one told them "300" was fantasy inspired by reality and not the other way around.
The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer is par for the course from the History Channel. I complain about the constant lack of anamorphic transfers every time I review a disc from the company, however, I still have no inkling as to why they are reluctant to do so. In spite of the cheap production values, the color and detail levels of the re-creations are quite impressive. The transfer also holds up during standard interview segments.
The Dolby Digital Stereo English audio track does highlight some good sound design during the re-creations and is well balanced with the standard narrated segments. It's a notch above what one would expect from a documentary series, but by no means equal to a fictional series.
At the end of the day, "Battles BC" doesn't bring anything new to the table. The historians and military experts are all top notch, but their information has been presented in the past in more exhaustive documentaries as well as series' focusing on ancient battles. In fact, the History Channel itself had a phenomenal program titled "Decisive Battles" on the air a half decade ago. It was factual, engaging, and utilized a gimmick properly; in "Decisive Battles" the re-creations were done using the game engine from Rome: Total War. The big difference was the computer re-creations showed the grand scheme of things as opposed to random sequences of actors in costumes imitating countless Hollywood films. Skip It.