Like it or not, educational programming isn't what it used to be. I consider myself privileged to have grown up at a time where the Discovery Channel offered the same quality of programming one would expect from PBS. Now, if you're lucky enough to find a fact based program on Discovery or History, you'll be bombarded with a lot of fancy graphics and slick editing, often for topics that are interesting enough on their own. The 1991 public television documentary series "The Shape of the World" however, on paper sounds like a program that would desperately need flash and pizzazz to keep the viewer interested; after all it's a five hour trek through the history of mapmaking.
"The Shape of the World" proves two things: mapmaking can be interesting and less, truly is more. Each of the six 50 minute episodes follows a basic approach: cover a period of mapmaking history in an efficient fashion. In lieu of flashy CGI animations, the viewer gets classic footage of the reliable old earth. The icing on the cake is the narrator: Patrick Stewart. Stewart brings a voice of respect and authority to the whole affair, but never seems like a gimmicky choice.
The most refreshing aspect of the program is the breadth it covers. Ancient mapping techniques span the globe (pun intended) and equal consideration and respect is given to contributions of different cultures. The experts chosen for interview support Stewart's narration and are assisted via recreations of past events. If there is one complaint I could slap onto each episode, it's the short runtimes. The content covered is so vast that I found myself wanting the program to linger on various aspects just a bit longer.
Unfortunately, modern viewers may find the conclusion a bit anti-climatic. Since the series was first run in 1991, there has been nearly two decades of massive innovation in all aspects of science and mapping is no exception. I could easily list numerous modern mapping breakthroughs that could have provided the backbone for two additional episodes. At the end of the day though, I think most viewers will find themselves more than satisfied with the six episodes presented, especially given the normally dry nature of the topic.
The 1.33:1 presentation is indicative of a late 80s/early 90s program produced for public television. The footage is roughly VHS quality, with a select bit fairing a bit worse and a select bit fairing a bit better. This shouldn't detract from the enjoyment of the series one bit.
The Dolby Digital English audio fairs slightly better, with Stewart's iconic voice as sharp as ever. Interview footage is generally clear and only hampered a few times by background noise. English subtitles are also presented.
Each disc in the set contains a short textual bonus feature titled "Chartbusters." These features give a short rundown of an important figure in mapping. Disc three also features text biographies of Patrick Stewart and editor Simon Berthorn. Also on disc three is a short text transcript with Stewart, which is quite revealing in showing why Stewart signed onto the project and his own love for the topic stemming back to childhood. Finally, a brief but well put together viewers guide is included, providing viewers with questions to ponder after each episode, a list of additional book resources, a few myths about maps, and a quick look at some basic math vital to the creation of maps. It's a simple but appreciated bonus.
"The Shape of the World" is more than worthy of standing in the halls of forgotten but tremendously effective documentary series'. It's a program that would be a smash hit in any classroom and is very likely to please lovers of educational programming. It's a reminder that simplicity works wonders and can often lead to making the unlikeliest of subjects eye-opening. Highly Recommended.