Truth be told, I'd easily consider myself as one of the majority of the population whose understanding of the "Dark Ages" consists of shaky half-truths and exaggerations, instead of well-researched historical accounts. It is this very mindset that Waldemar Januszczak, former art critic for both "The Guardian" and "The Sunday Times" uses as the basis and justification for his four-part, miniseries of hour-long episodes exploring specific themes related to the "Dark Ages" in an attempt to shatter these rather dangerous and often ignorant recollections of history. Although once applied to what we now call the "Middle Ages," the "Dark Ages" more accurately reflects a time period beginning with the decline of the Roman Empire and ending early into the "Middles Ages" as a whole. Janusczcak begins the program with the briefest of introductions, hitting all those classical myths before presenting a menu of various cultures and topics that he will cover to shatter preconceived notions and expectations. Unfortunately for many, Janusczcak's approach in the first episode sets a combative and somewhat questionable tone that mars the series as a whole.
In the first episode, "The Clash of the Gods" Januszcack makes some very bold claims regarding links between ancient Roman art and hidden Christian symbols. This is all well and good information and yes, quite enlightening, particular discussions of complex codes built into innocuous wall hangings, but Janusczcak takes things a step further and in many ways backhandedly implies without much more than personal interpretation that the story of Jesus has been redefined over the years, as evidenced by Jesus' original portrayal as a more feminine figure, before evolving into a symbol of suffering. Now while I'm not taking a side between atheism and Christianity, I find Janusczcak's attitude at times slightly mocking of faith in general, coming short of saying the figure of Christ himself is entirely fabricated. That's not to say there are some very solid nuggets of information to be gleaned form episode one, but frankly, his approach to the Barbarian cultures in episode two were a welcome shift in tone.
Episodes two and three specifically are the highlights of the series with "What the Barbarians Did for Us" at the minimum providing a greater historical context to who the various Barbarian cultures were and in the process dispelling myths and stereotypes. The focus is on a broad scope centered on art and again some of Janusczcak's claims seem shaky, attempting to allow beautiful and intricate works of art act as a half-hearted apology or softening of some acts carried out by these cultures. "The Wonder of Islam" however is a much needed exploration into an often misunderstood religion's more modern offerings in terms of art and architecture, as well as key contributions to humanity's quest for greater understanding in the fields of ancient scientific inquiry.
"The Dark Ages: An Age of Light" closes out on a rather shaky note with "The Men of the North," an overall lightweight look at the Viking culture. While I'm sure others could also make the case for the three other episode topics, I frankly have seen much better, or at the very minimum more engaging looks at Viking culture from even the most pandering, lowest common denominator outlets, namely The History Channel. Janusczcak's look is rushed, and by the end of this series is delivery has worn out its welcome. In general Janusczcak's is an adequate host, but the end result of this product is too much of a mixed bag to begin with and holds very minimal replay value due to the content mostly hitting surface level ideas.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is more than serviceable with generally natural looking colors, above average detail, and far less grain/digital noise than one would expect.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is clean and well balanced, although there is nothing terribly dynamic with any part of the mix; it's exactly what you'd expect from a standard documentary series. English SDH subtitles are included.
The bonus features consist of a text-based supplement covering the timeline of the Dark Ages and a biography of the series' host.
"The Dark Ages: An Age of Light" is a noble attempt to provide greater context to the masses about a very misunderstood era in history. Janusczcak's should have probably saved his Christianity themed episode for last, as I can say without hesitation it will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many viewers and possibly skew their ability to take his other episodes seriously. The series hits enough of the right marks though to warrant a solid rental, but its long-term value is questionable. Rent It.