Big History is a way of looking at the past with a broader perspective
than historians have traditionally used (or so the adherents claim).
Instead of looking a linear progression of events, the field tries to
embrace the whole of history and science in order to discover
previously unknown links between seemingly disparate events. At least
that's the theory. My only exposure to the discipline has been through Big History, a 17-episode
documentary series that aired on The History Channel, and while the
program is chocked full of interesting ideas and worthwhile
information, it really didn't sell me on idea that the concept is
radically different from other fields of study. That could have been
because the fast-paced nature of the show and the short time allotted
to each episode (30-minutes including commercials) meant that most of
the points were glossed over.
Narrated by Brian Cranston, Big
History is concerned with encompassing the whole of creation to
explain just how humanity and the world came to look and behave the way
it does now. Why is it that, all around the world, people wear pants?
Why has gold been a valuable metal throughout history? Could salt be
responsible for the placement of roads? These, and many other
interesting questions, are examined in each episode and the results can
be surprising. Instead of limiting their scope to traditional history,
and by jumping forward and backwards through time, the show is able to
explain some seemingly unusual behavior.
Take the link between roads and salt for example. When roads were first
built in the US, they followed trails people used, which in turn came
about because people followed worn animal trails. The animal trails
usually went to salt licks, which were created when ancient seas
evaporated. Therefore roads were created because of salt... or at least
that's the argument that the program makes. It's a very interesting
idea and one that may very well be true, but the show doesn't do a very
good job of selling that position. They pretty much state their case
state a series of facts, claim that they're all linked, and then move
on to the next interesting thing about (in this case) salt.
And that's one of my main complaints with the show: it glosses over
just about every point that it's trying to make. Why is gold valuable?
Because it glitters. Without presenting any evidence, it is claimed
that early humans on the plains of Africa searched for light glittering
off of water in streams and lakes, which of course was vital for
survival. They list other valuable things that glitter (chrome on cars
and jewels), and then boldly state that human beings are "hard-wired"
to value things that glitter and therefore gold is valuable. For a
discipline that wants to embrace more than just history, I was hoping
that they'd bring in some neurologists that could corroborate the
theory, or at least explain away counter examples of valuable items
that don't glitter. (Why don't we paint houses in bright, shiny
colors?) But they don't. They just assume that stating that a series of
facts are linked will be sufficient. They also need to check
thier scripts more carefully. When the discuss why gold glitters,
they get the science wrong. (They state that when light hits the
outer shell of electrons in a gold atom, it causes them to form a
cloud. They even have some animation to show the electrons
changing from nice neat orbits, like planets, only to become a chaotic
cloud when photons hit them. That's not how it works.)
Part of the reason that everything is discussed superficially is
because of the style of the show. It's put together like a music video
with fast cuts, exciting audio effects, and great pans across the CGI
sections (which are repeated over and over). It's as if the writers
were told that they target audience were people who couldn't hold their
attention on any one thing for more than 60 seconds. (Which begs the
question: do people with very short attention spans watch
documentaries?) It's unfortunate that the show was created in such a
hyper-kinetic fashion, because they really do bring up some very
intriguing ideas. One of my favorites was that the size of ancient
empires was limited to the speed of communication: if a message sent
from the outer most regions to the capital took more than a week to be
delivered, the empire couldn't grow much further. I was disappointed
that they didn't explore that concept, or any others, in more detail.
All 17 episodes, including the two-hour final installment, arrive on
three Blu-ray discs housed in a single-width case.
The show is presented with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and nice 1080p AVC
encoded image. Overall the show looks nice with a good amount of detail
and solid colors. The CGI scenes (which are endlessly repeated in each
episode) come across as being soft and not as well defined, but they
pan and zoom across these computer images so quickly that it's not
really noticeable unless you're really looking for it. The archival
footage appears to by upscale and consequently lacks some of the punch
that the newly-filmed sections have.
The audio on documentaries are usually pretty boring. Not so with this
show. The creators mated a dynamic and hectic audio track to their
hyper-kinetic visuals. There are lots to pans and sounds thrown to the
rear speakers, and even the subwoofer gets a pretty good workout in
each episode. The mix was nice, it never overpowered the narration and
while they did go overboard in my opinion, it was refreshing to hear a
documentary that did more than throw a standard stereo mix onto the
The extras are limited to half an hour of deleted scenes that are all
thrown on the final disc. These weren't too Earth-shattering, but if
you really enjoyed the show you'll like watching these ten short clips.
This is a show that has a lot of potential, but unfortunately it never
quite lives up to it. There are a lot of interesting and intriguing
concepts that are put forth, but none of them are looked at in any
detail. The fast and hectic pace of the show gets annoying after a
while too. It would make a good rental.