The TV Series:
A double-disc set from The History Channel (now known as just History, apparently), Frozen World: The Story of the Ice Age collects four programs from that entity's vast programming archive. The set's offerings manage to combine history and science in an accessible way, making it something of a throwback to its "All World War II, All The Time" days. You know, before the channel became the dumping ground for reality shows with tenuous ties to history. No ice road truckers, pawn stars, or axe men to be found here, folks!
The programs included on Frozen World: The Story of the Ice Age are as follows:
Clash of the Cavemen (2008; 90 minutes). In the year 28,000 b.c., Southern Europe is crippled by an ice age which leaves Earth's co-existing species of homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, struggling to survive. The primitive Neanderthals have rugged physical proportions and a longer time span on Earth in their favor, but they are intellectually unable to cope with the onset of lower temps and the lack of wildlife (food) that comes with it. Meanwhile, the more nimble and evolved Cro-Magnons have developed sophisticated spear weaponry and organized hunting methods that give them the edge to survive and ultimately triumph. Re-creations with actors in wigs and makeup, comic book-style animation and a variety of experts help to explain what life was like in the roughly 5,000-year period when Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons walked the Earth together. The program has a few odd missteps (a female Neanderthal, about to give birth, is shown doing Lamaze-style breathing), but otherwise it's an informative show packed with intriguing theories (did they really interbreed?).
Volcanic Winter (2008; 45 minutes). This episode of History's Mega Disasters examines the volcanic eruption at Lake Toba in what is now Indonesia, a massive eruption that plunged Earth into an ice age 69,000 to 77,000 years ago. Acres of stock footage and expert testimonials help explain how the climate change caused by volcanic ash and methane gas seeping into the atmosphere nearly wiped out humankind. This particular episode is somewhat dumbed-down and padded out with repetitious footage and cheesy animation. The show is also hampered by a tone of barely concealed hysteria throughout, as evidenced by the Concerned Narrator's constant warnings that a volcano of Toba's magnitude could happen again at a moment's notice (yeeks!).
Journey to 10,000 BC (2008; 90 minutes) examines the first humans to cross over the Arctic ice shelf from Russia to settle in what is now North America. Through the lens of current paleontologists' findings, we piece together the dangers that these nomadic tribes of Paleo-Indians faced, such as mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. Sophisticated hunting techniques and the development of a lethal whittled down stone called the Clovis spearhead helped to ensure these peoples' survival. The program depends on the usual talking heads and (rather cheesy) re-creations to make a solidly entertaining program. Much of it is based on proven findings, although the show does go into more fanciful theories such as the idea that these Paleo-Indians with their primitive weaponry originally crossed over the Atlantic Ocean in giant sailboats. It isn't quite South Park's "What if aliens were at the first Thanksgiving?", but it's close.
Mega Freeze (2006; 45 minutes), another Mega Disasters episode, looks a variety of climate change episodes in Earth's history - from Mount Vesuvius to the mini-ice age of the 16th-19th centuries - to speculate whether humankind would be able to withstand another Ice Age happening in our lifetimes. Like Volcanic Winter the show goes all over the place with tightly edited cuts, stock footage aplenty and that constant, oppressive sense of dread. The show gets a few good points across, but the overall impression I get is that of filler that would be programmed just before the informercials come out at midnight.
Despite the menus on Frozen World: The Story of the Ice Age being shown in 16x9 widescreen, the programs themselves are presented as letterboxed in 4:3 full screen format. Perhaps the folks at History are courting oldsters who are still clinging to their CRT sets? Despite that bitter disappointment, the picture on the two longer programs is fine. The Mega Disasters episodes have a softer look with considerably less depth in the photography, however.
All four programs have decent sounding stereo soundtracks with no captioning or alternate language options.
Like the Neanderthals, any bonuses on this set are lost to the winds.
Summing up, what you get with Frozen World: The Story of the Ice Age are two informative long-form documentaries and two episodes of the infinitely cheesier Mega Disasters, presented in a format that only a Cro-Magnon could love. The two longer programs are thoughtfully made and worth a single viewing, however. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.