"The History Channel" unleashes an epic box set that focuses on, history, something the network has forgotten, in favor of pseudoscience and reality shows. The "Empires Megaset" is 14 discs of ancient history focusing on numerous aspects of famous civilizations as well as those you might know that much about. While all the series' featured have been released separately, the set here is much more affordable than tracking down each individual release. Over the course of over 32 hours you'll experience, "Engineering an Empire," "Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire," "Ancients Behaving Badly," and "Barbarians." Additionally, sprinkled across the discs are bonuses that aren't just your promotional featurettes or behind-the-scenes material, but entire episodes of other "History" programs that fit the theme of the collection.
I can say upfront that while some of the series' contained are far from perfect, none suffer from the shallow excuses "History" passes off now such as "Battles BC" or some of the completely shameless movie tie-in programs that exploit history as an extended commercial for the latest "historically based" action film. However, the worst of this set is still well worth your time, and the best is in fact some of the best programming to ever grace the network. It's a lot of information to take in and will keep you busy for at least a couple of months.
Engineering an Empire (Discs 1 through 6)
"Engineering an Empire" was the one series I was previously familiar with that made its way into this set. I had previously reviewed a "History" repackaging of their extended-length episode on Egypt and found myself reminiscing about how great the series as a whole was. This series is without a shadow of a doubt, the crown jewel in this collection and would make the shortlist of my favorite "History" productions. It accomplishes the near impossible feat of presenting fact without sensationalism while managing to keep even the most jaded viewer's interest on target.
The 14 episodes consist of the two, 90-minute pieces on Rome and Egypt, with the remaining 12, being 45-minute programs that aired as a regular series. The program covers a wide territory beginning with your heavyweights of the history books: The Romans, The Egyptians, and The Greeks (who get two episodes), before expanding to The Aztecs, Carthaginians, Mayans, Russians, Early Britains, Persians, Chinese, The Age of Napoleonic France, The Byzantines, and last but not least, the Italian world circa Leonardo Da Vinci. The last episode might disappoint viewers with it's vague title, but if you know going in, it's not a Da Vinci centric episode, you won't feel too bad.
The first things viewers will likely notice is the host, Peter Weller. Yes, it's that Peter Weller. Weller isn't just a professional Hollywood figure brought in for kicks. In looking up information regarding the background of the "Engineering an Empire" series I discovered Weller, most known for his role as Robocop, recently completed graduate work in Roman and Renaissance art, and is currently working on a Ph.D while teaching history courses at Syracuse University. Weller's legitimate understanding of the topics at hand combined with his unique voice and screen presence makes for a very natural host.
Kids and adults alike should be able to enjoy and take away something from the show. It does a great job of keeping viewers engaged with standard interviews, on-location scenes, dramatic recreations, and computer-generated imagery, which really helps illustrate the building aspects from the ground up. It's not gimmicky in any way, shape, or form; it educates while still entertaining. Even though the series adopts a standard, 45-minute approach to episodes after the initial two offerings, I never felt "History" intentionally shortchanged any cultures. The same level of quality was maintained from start to finish and viewers will walk away respecting the astonishing achievements of all the cultures featured here; no one group is billed as more exciting or "better" than another.
"Engineering an Empire" is the type of programming that should be the standard for "History" and not the rare exception. Sadly, this is the case and even though the remaining three series' in the set are still good, the scales of edutainment shift more in favor of the "tainment" side of things. It's a shame as the masses shouldn't be treated in such away. As a teacher, I strive to push all my students to do their best, even though they all learn at their own rates. "History" could take something away from that basic educational practice and challenge viewers again to find learning entertaining, not merely learn something while being entertained.
Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire (Discs 7 through 10)
"Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire" may be a 13-part, 45-minute episode series, but the title itself is somewhat of a misnomer. Yes, the series covers (a large portion of) Roman history, but like many "History" programs, the desire to sensationalize and excite viewers takes hold. Not in the form of horribly CGI reenactments or shilling of Hollywood movies, but by having an almost preserve fascination with conflict. If I took the title at literal face value and knew nothing else of the Romans, I'd think all they did was fight and their entire culture was based on fighting.
On one hand, while conflict and battle was an important and often-large part of the saga of Rome, so were politics and the rich culture that are incredibly iconic. One could try and rationalize "History's" focus on the violence as appealing to the masses, with "Engineering an Empire" focusing more on the "quieter" moments in Roman history and assuming the average television viewer doesn't care about ancient politics. Sadly, I think that might just be the case and it's aggravating "History" continues to dumb down learning for the masses, especially when "Rise and Fall of an Empire" is a generally well-made series.
The presentation is your standard "History" approach: a competent narrator providing overviews, dramatic recreations aiding other visual devices such as stock images and CGI maps, and last, but not least, the academic providing a richer insight into events. Quibbles about content choices aside, each of the 13 episodes remain engaging and full of both well-known information and more intricate details that just won't fit in a standard two-hour overview of the Roman Empire. The production values are worth pointing out here as they are well above the standard "History" series. The series is amazingly immersive, even if a lot of the footage falls into the subtle trap of using slow motion to stretch things further. I don't fault "History" for doing this, but after watching nearly 10 hours of the same format in short succession, little tricks like this become a bit more obvious.
Ultimately, "Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire" is going to appeal more to those with a keen interest in the combat of the ancient world and the politics surrounding wars and betrayals. The series does cover the "big guns" of the Roman political world like Julius Caesar, but it almost eventually ends with an important battle, but a battle nevertheless. I wanted more than "Rise and Fall of an Empire" offered, especially in regards to the roots of the empire itself. I can recall a briefer series titled "Rome: Power and Glory" that spends about the same time as one of these episodes do on the predecessors to the Romans, in the form of the Etruscans. Maybe this culture's history wasn't as bloody and exciting, but it is a key step to the wealth and glory of the Romans.
Ancients Behaving Badly (Discs 11 and 12)
"Ancients Behaving Badly" spends 45-minutes each episode focusing on a famous ancient leader (eight total: Caligula, Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, and Nero) who wasn't always a model leader or decent human being for that matter. However, these are far from your standard "Biography" episodes; in fact, it's easy to compare the two series as one of the bonus features on Disc 15 is an episode of "Biography" focusing on Genghis Khan who is profiled here. Instead, "Ancients Behaving Badly" pushes the line of edutainment more towards the sensationalistic side of things. This is not a series for the whole family; it's blunt and bloody, not just of necessity, but also to thrill viewers.
Instantly bombarding viewers with stylized reenactments and bloody animated segments, my expectations pertaining to the educational quality of "Ancients Behaving Badly" was quickly lowered. At surface glance this series appears to be nothing more than the shocking side of history, exploited for ratings. However, once the overly dramatic intro to each episode concludes and we get down to business, the series settles into a steady, but still exciting proper pace. The narrator bridges the gap between segments running the gamut from interviews with historians, dramatic reenactments, and even demonstrations of ancient ways. When a big claim is made, the series attempts to bring in an expert in the appropriate field to back it up.
The big complaint I have is the breakneck editing that at times would make Michael Bay jealous. As the narrator leisurely discusses a ruler like Attila the Hun committing genocide, fast cuts between footage of historical sites, stock footage, and intense visuals are the norm. The jump from live-action reenactments and heavily stylized animation can also be a bit disconcerting and the animation at times can be tacky, focusing on violent acts. Fortunately, "History" breaks up the horrors of these madmen (and one woman), by taking time to provide insight into the cultures ruled by each episode's guest of (dis)honor. It gives you a sense for why many of the battles discussed occurred they way they did as well as a look into the mindset of the people, sometimes showing the leaders weren't always on the fringe of thought for their times.
"Ancients Behaving Badly" is by no means a substitute for a more comprehensive purely academic look at these historical figures a la "Biography," instead it's a supplement to that series as well as series' that focus on the specific cultures as a whole. The initial gimmick of ranking how psychopathic each ruler is, often comes off a bit heavy handed with one historian stating up front "so and so" is barbaric and providing some solid examples supporting this accusation. As the episodes unfold, new atrocities arise and the same accusation is thrown out, often like it's a startling new revelation. "Ancients Behaving Badly" is a series that strays close to the line of being disposable, but ends up putting it's money where it's mouth is. It sleazes up fact, but in the end, teaches you quite a bit.
Barbarians (Discs 13 and 14)
Last but not least is "Barbarians." It's worth noting that "History" released two volumes of this series and only the first is contained here, omitting the second release that covered some lesser-known groups such as The Vandals and the Lombards. The four episodes that are featured cover the heavy hitters: The Vikings, The Goths, The Huns, and The Mongols. Each episode runs approximately 45-minutes and strikes a good balance between basic fact and the more sensational aspects of history that serve as hooks for those on the fence.
Standard narration makes up the backbone of each episode with various scholars popping up on camera to expand on basic facts and provide some editorializing. Unfortunately, with only 45-minutes per culture, "Barbarians" tries to cover too much ground and can often feel disjointed. At times the episodes feel like the "greatest hits" of each group with basic background information being covered before key events being covered, as well as those that seem to be chosen for nothing more than their uniqueness. Early on in the Vikings episode, one such anecdote relating a standoff between a Viking, a Pagan, and a Christian, fits this bill.
Viewers are almost always left wanting to learn more and when it comes to The Vikings and The Mongols at least other series' about these cultures are available, but I can't recall the last time I saw anything in depth about The Goths on "History," and given the trouble they posed for Rome, I definitely want more than 45-minutes worth of information. Ultimately though, "Barbarians" does a good job of what it advertises, delivering solid edutainment. The focal point is firmly on imparting information and the reenactments are used as supplements to narration, never becoming the focus of the series. They aren't Hollywood quality by any means, but serve their purpose well.
"Barbarians" is easily the weakest entry in the box set and the exclusion of the second volume leaves a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. Despite being the "worst" of the set, it's definitely the series that will appeal to the average viewer and is the first place someone should start if they want to bring a naysayer on board for the long haul.
All four of the featured series' presented come with 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfers and are all generally good, given the technical limitation. Aliasing is the most common hiccup present, although the occasional compression artifact and overly soft transfer will be noticeable. Color balance is fortunately solid on each series, with a few instances of a moiré effect during interview segments.
The English 2.0 audio tracks that grace each disc are well beyond serviceable for the content of the series. The narration is always clear and strongly balanced amidst the sometimes overly bombastic scores, and distortion is never an issue.
The extras sporadically pop up on the various discs, holdovers from the original individual releases. On the lighter side of things, disc four houses your standard behind-the-scenes featurette for "Engineering an Empire," while discs five and six feature episode specific featurettes as well as a quick rundown on Egypt. "Barbarians" gets its own making-of on disc 13.
The standout extras though are a complete episode of "Modern Marvels" (another great "History" series) focusing on Barbarian technology, housed on disc 10. It's a great supplement to the series on Rome as well as the "Barbarians" series. On disc 14, an episode of "A&E's" legendary series "Biography" turns up, profiling Genghis Khan. It's a good episode, as most episodes of the series focusing on important figures in history usually are, but left me wishing "History" could have stuck an extras disc or two in the set, with other episodes from the series featuring notable ancient leaders.
The "Empires Megaset" is a bit of a mixed bag as a whole, which often tends to be the case with these large compilations sets from "History," especially when the subject matter is broad. Three of the four series look at ancient cultures on a larger scale, with "Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire" takes the obvious focused approach on one titular civilization. In the end, the set is a bit Rome heavy for obvious reasons, but still quite enjoyable. "Engineering an Empire" aside the series all have their pros and cons, but are still a good notch above the standard "History" programming. Think of this set as a strong backbone for the new (or even seasoned) history buff. You'll need to expand it with various bits and pieces as time goes on, but the value for your dollar here is hard to pass up. Highly Recommended.