Anyone who has ever read my review of educational programming, might have recognized I can be very critical of flash over substance. The Discovery Channel has devolved over the years into reality themed programming. It all started with "American Chopper" a show about a family of custom motorcycle designers and builders. I found the show fascinating, until the focus quickly shifted from the building element to the "drama" in the shop. I haven't watched an episode of the series (now on TLC) for a few years because frankly, I have better things to do than watch grown men bicker.
"Doing Da Vinci" set off some quiet alarms from the premise alone: a group of engineers and craftsmen come together to bring some of Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous inventions to life. I was drawn to the program after having recently visited a museum exhibit titled "Da Vinci- The Genius" where many of these very inventions were created using materials of the time period, but often scaled down. It left a huge impression on me, so to see these inventions come to life, in full working condition was an allure I couldn't avoid.
The show follows a simple format: Da Vinci expert Dr. Jonathan Pevsner introduces one of Da Vinci's inventions to the team and charges them with the task of building a full scale, working replica of it. From there, the team gets down to brass tacks. Valek Sykes is the leader of the group, as it's his shop they're working from. Sykes brings his years as a special effects designer to the table, as well as colleague Jurgen Heimann. The other two mainstays of the cast are Bill Dugan and Flash Hopkins. Flash is a gregarious presence to say the least, and while his talent and enthusiasm are undeniable, his peculiar ways quickly grate on the nerves of Valek and Jurgen. In the first two episodes as well as season finale, engineer Alan Bovinett is present to see some of the more complicated aspects brought to fruition. His presence was greatly missed however, as Valek is left to deal with mistakes brought on by Flash's hasty approach to construction.
I expected it to happen and the series didn't fail; by episode three, the drama surrounding a building mistake ended up being brought to the spotlight for far too long. Tempers mildly flared and things did get back to the building aspect of the show, but the 40 minutes each episode runs is too precious to waste with bickering and arguing. The focus of the show is building these amazing machines, keep it that way. The series creators obviously latched onto the bickering and it quickly becomes apparent there are two factions here: Valek and Jurgen, the engineering minds and Bill and Flash, the builders. The rivalry is put to good use though in the fifth episode, where the teams have a contest to build one of Da Vinci's machines from incomplete designs. At the end of the day though, the differences do get put aside and the task is completed with all parties celebrating their hard work.
In terms of the core of the show, the inventions of Da Vinci, every episode is engaging. The engineering minds are amazing, taking the sketches from Da Vinci's notebook and figuring out how to make them practical (the designs by all accounts were theoretical and never constructed before); they face obstacles such as incomplete sketches and "booby traps" that a less sharp mind might not catch. They try to stick with materials of the time, but do end up using a lot of metal, but often to ensure the machines are structurally safe and sound. Viewers may be amazed to know Da Vinci developed the concept of ball bearings. When I first sat down to check out the beginning of the series, the program immediately sucked me in; information is relayed in a very understandable fashion and illustrated well by the building process going on. If there are two faults I have with the program, it's that there could be a little more depth and the episodes could be longer. The runtime feels half as long as it is.
The episode that impressed me the most was the Scythe Chariot. Seeing a cart of spinning death slowly come together is mind-blowing; the end product is akin to something from a fantasy film, but it's not, it's from the mind of one of history's greatest genius. The men have a serious reverence for it's deadly nature and the final test of its destructive power elicits smiles while managing to chill the spine. Also greatly appreciated is the cast's ability to explain building concepts, even basic ones, to the audience. I know very little of building, so hearing little comments about what is going on and why they are doing a specific task, helps me put together the big picture a little more easier.
After six episodes, Discovery has convinced me that "Doing Da Vinci" is worth my time. I'm optimistic the show will return, as Da Vinci has many more fascinating creations waiting to be built and tested. The notable absence of his flying machines leads me to believe they have surprises in store for future episodes. I do hope that the focus remains on the inventions and building process, rather than the bickering, as the subject is too unique to devolve into cheap reality schlock.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite solid. For a documentary/reality program, the color balance remains consistent and the level of detail is on the high end. I noticed no edge enhancement, but some mild compression artifacts were evident from time to time. It's nothing to make you say "Wow" but on the same page, isn't distracting from the program itself.
The Dolby Digital English stereo track was more than adequate from the program. Dialogue was strong, clear and well mixed; an added treat is background sounds of other work going on, giving you a good sense that progress is being made and people aren't just posing for the camera. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included.
A handful of deleted scenes appear on the first disc. They end up revealing a lot of interesting information was cut from the final episodes. A few of my unanswered questions about the designs were answered here. However, to see facts get tossed out, while the reality bickering remains, does raise my dander a bit.
"Doing Da Vinci" is a very solid addition to the Discovery lineup. It reminded me at times of the "good old days" of Mythbusters, when the focus was on solving the mystery. Like previous shows, "Mythbusters" got too big, too fast, and pales in comparison to the days of Jamie and Adam. "Doing Da Vinci" benefits greatly from the small team of builders and when they are able to put all their skills to use, the results are amazing. This is a talented team that is showing the world just how great a mind Leonardo Da Vinci had. One of the men sum's it up best early on, stating that Da Vinci was not only ahead of his time, but also possibly rivals some of the great modern minds. After seeing some of the creations come to life, I'd agree without a doubt. Recommended.