James May, one of the Top Gear hosts who has been given the nickname Captain Slow by his two partners in crime on the popular BBC car show, brought his unique style to another show in 2007, James May's 20th Century. In this six episode program he looked at the inventions, innovations, and ideas that made the last century so unique. From long distance air travel to replacement body parts to the invention of the teenager, James May takes an amusing and rather distinctive trip through the 1900's.
The 20th Century was a time of unprecedented advancement and innovation. When it began man wasn't capable of powered flight, but by the end we'd not only sent probes to the far reaches of the solar system but even put a man on the moon. Tracing just how, and why, mankind has changed over the last 100 years can be a somewhat daunting task but TV personality James May is up to the task.
The thing that's so appealing about this show is that James takes a different approach to the subject, that has been done many times before. He takes what could be a dry and somewhat dull overview of the 20th Century and makes it entertaining and amusing by tracing how certain inventions changed the way we live. For example, he looks at how the world has become 'smaller' because of the airplane and car, but could television be the advancement that's had the most impact on bringing the world closer together? In one episode he makes the convincing argument that necessity isn't the mother of invention, instead it's war. He also looks at the phenomena of the teenager, a creature that really didn't exist before the end of WWII.
James May's presentation style is what makes the show so enjoyable. He still has the wide-eyed excitement of a kid as he looks at fighter planes and satellites that are about to be shot into space, but he also has the same refined air about him that works so well on Top Gear. Most of all, he just has fun. When discussing a popular motorcycle that teens could drive in England without a license do to the engine size (a vehicle that his mother wouldn't let him have because they were 'too dangerous'), he recalls a high school buddy who claimed that you could do 60 on one of them. James was never sure about that claim, so he gets a cycle and a radar gun and sees just how fast he can travel (and confirms that his friend, whom he names on air, was a liar). It's stunts like that which make the show so fun.
The show is very British-centric, mainly focusing on how inventions and idea affected the UK. When he discusses how important transatlantic air travel was, he doesn't talk about Lindberg, rather a pair of UK aviators who took off from England and crashed in Ireland a short while later. Since they'd traveled over water however, they technically were the first to fly over the Atlantic. (I wasn't too convinced by the claim.)
The show is also aimed at more general viewers and isn't too rigorous in its approach. While there were a few new facts that I hadn't heard, in general I knew everything that was covered in the show. Even so, the program was interesting because of some of the stunts and gags that the host pulls. For example, I knew it was hard for WWI pilots to bomb the enemy and that they weren't very accurate, but seeing James trying to drop bags of flour on a target from only a few hundred feet, and missing horribly, was eye opening. Overall it's more entertaining than educational, but there's nothing wrong with that.
This series arrives on three DVDs, each in its own slimline case. The three cases are housed in a slipcase.
The stereo soundtrack is fine for a documentary. It's not incredibly dynamic but it doesn't need to be. Solid and serviceable.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks very good. The lines are tight and there's a good amount of detail. I didn't notice any compression artifacts or other major flaws.
The third disc is devoted to extras and the good folks at Athena have included all three episodes of James May's Big Ideas, a short series May created in 2008. In this show James strives to see if any of the science fiction concepts from his childhood have become a reality. He looks at real prototypes of jet packs, flying cars, examines how far the field of robotics has developed, and finally looks at new sources of energy. It's a fun show that's an excellent bonus.
There's also a biography of May as well as a small viewers guide included with the discs.
It's hard not to like James May. He's my favorite Top Gear host, and his mix of enthusiasm, refinement, and knowledge fits in well with this show. Though it's not terribly educational, especially for someone who lived through a good chunk of the 20th Century as this reviewer did, it's still a lot of fun. It gets a strong recommendation.