Competition, Science, Democracy, Medicine, Consumerism, and The Work Ethic. According to Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson, these are the six "killer apps" that allowed Western culture to dominate over the east over the course of modern history. Spanning six, 45-minute episodes, each focusing on one of these "killer apps," "Civilization: The West and The Rest" bills itself as a fresh approach to looking back at historical achievements of both the West and the East and in the process, looking forward to the future to see if the trend of Western dominance will continue to flourish or fall by the wayside.
Hosted by Ferguson, "Civilization" is little more than a step-above your gimmicky History Channel miniseries offering. Thankfully stripped of cheap CGI flourishes and academics with questionable, baseless theories, Ferguson instead goes the safe route of hitting what he feels are key advancements in Western History and for the average viewer, if they can get past the corny gimmick of calling basic components of culture "killer apps" the result is a light primer in history. For anyone else, "Civilization" is going to come off as a downright bore at times and the frequent disappearance of the "social commentary" aspect of the program is infuriating, in some instances the "look forward" feels hurriedly tacked on.
More frustrating is the broad nature of each episode is misleading, with the second episode focusing on "Science" not living up to what I (and I'd assume many other viewers) view as science in a historical context. Further complicating the viewing experience is the obvious factor of Ferguson coming off as aloof and distant, which makes a multi-episodic program as this, hard to stomach after a while. I won't question his authority, but too often I found him overselling minor facts to the point, that I wished the episode would just hurry up and end. To Ferguson's credit, the final episode focusing on "The Work Ethic" is a welcome departure from the otherwise safe and obvious topics that precede it, and the inclusion of religion in the discussion, should only find controversy with those grasping at straws.
The best praise I can offer "Civilization: The West and the Rest" is that I didn't feel overly insulted, despite some of the material being as revolutionary as the series tries to build-up to. History doesn't need a gimmick and while this is nowhere near the sensationalism, of a History Channel production., it's not what I expected from a BBC series. Ultimately, the series is going to hit a large target audience that might only receive any sense of historical context outside the walls of a classroom from programs such as this and in that sense, "Civilization: The West and the Rest" does an admirable job, it just doesn't touch any bars it aspires to raise.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is on par with most television documentary offerings. Colors are a bit on the hot side at times and detail is slightly degraded by some minor DNR. Digital noise is on the lighter side as a result and edge-enhancement is only to be found under close scrutiny. The transition form "studio" shots to location shots can be jarring and arguably, the series looks a lot better in a more uncontrolled environment, where colors are more natural.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio is straight and to the point, with a strong balance between the overlaid narration, forgettable score, and on-camera dialogue. No one element fights for the spotlight and the mix is clean, without any technical issues, apart form a lack of any sort of notable low-end range. English SDH subtitles are included.
"Civilization: The West and The Rest" is a mildly effective, entry-level primer to the branching differences of Western versus Eastern civilization, but anyone expecting anything revolutionary should check their expectations at the door; it's only above a History Channel series in terms of not shoveling a backwards agenda at viewers and honestly attempting to impart some knowledge. The problem lies in the knowledge being base level and the "gimmick" of the program sometimes being forgotten for long stretches. Rent It.