For every documentary that delves deep into a fascinating topic and brings interesting facts to light for the viewer, there's another that seems to wander off and get lost. Celts: Rich Traditions and Ancient Myths is one of the latter: a program with a great topic and lots of potential that squanders that potential in disorganization and a shallow treatment of the topic.
With six 52-minute episodes to cover the topic of "the Celts," this documentary certainly has plenty of time to get a grip on its material. In general, I suppose we could say that Celts is an examination of the rich cultural heritage of the Celtic peoples, from their Indo-European origins all the way to the present day in areas like Ireland and Wales. The episodes (and their topics) are, in order, "The Man with the Golden Shoes" (Celtic origins), "The Birth of Nations" (more on Celtic origins), "A Pagan Trinity" (religion), "The Open-Ended Curve" (art), "The Final Conflict" (language preservation), and "The Legacy" (Celtic influences). But although the topics can be summarized concisely, that's not to say that the episodes are well focused... far from it.
The main fault here (and it's a major one) is the abysmal organization of the program. It's never clear where any given episode is going; each one seems like a random assortment of facts, short interviews with various experts, and historical re-enactments that take place with little context. Without knowing what the connecting thread is among all these elements, it's very difficult to stay interested or to make any real sense out of it. The first episode is a prime example. To begin with, it has the baffling title "The Man with the Golden Shoes," which we eventually find out refers to a Celtic burial... not that that has anything to do with the overall content of the episode, which is roughly the early origins and expansion of the Celts. Within the episode, we hop from one archaeological site to another without any context or clear organization (either chronological or geographical). We spend a bafflingly long time watching the autopsy of an ancient body found in a peat bog, but this section is never connected to the overall material; later, we'll hop over to another burial and see more random grave goods, then discuss the Roman battles against the Celts. Where is all this going? Nowhere especially interesting, I can assure you.
The other episodes are sadly very similar in their lack of organization. One of the consequences of this is that it's difficult to get a sense of either chronology or geography for the events that are discussed. Another consequence is that some of the material ends up being repeated; for instance, the Roman-Celtic conflict is gone over several times superficially.
Sadly, there ends up being very little of substance here even if you can stomach the utter disorganization of the program. The constant jumping around from place to place and time period to time period makes it next to impossible to sustain a coherent explanation about anything. Adding to the "puffed out" flavor of the program are the "cute" scenes with the narrator in a modern-day setting that is apparently intended to draw a connection between modern and ancient times, such as him at a typewriter when he's discussing messages being sent between rulers. These little scenes fall flat, seeming silly and pointless rather than informative.
Celts: Rich Traditions and Ancient Myths also seems aimed at an audience with certain particular preconceptions about the Celts. The narrator frequently takes a rather defensive tone about how the Celts have been under-appreciated, or misunderstood, or stereotyped, and he seems to take for granted that the audience will have particular, incorrect assumptions about what the Celts were like. Since I didn't know a whole lot about the Celts, but also didn't share this mysterious set of prejudices either, it made for a rather odd feeling, as if I weren't the intended audience for this program at all. This approach wouldn't have been a problem if the program itself were rich in content, but as it is, it's the final nail in the coffin for Celts: Rich Traditions and Ancient Myths.
Celts: Rich Traditions and Ancient Myths is a two-DVD set; however, I can't comment on the packaging as the studio only sent screener discs.
This 1980s-era production has suffered the usual ravages of time and hasn't been perked up (at least not noticeably) for its DVD transfer. The image is faded, with colors looking rather gray and wan, and the picture is very soft and blurry. Some print flaws also appear, and in general the impression is of a worn and somewhat tired image, though it's watchable. The program is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The 2.0 soundtrack squeaks by with an average mark, mainly on the strength of the lovely musical soundtrack by Enya. The narrator's voice, and that of the various people interviewed, is usually adequately clear, but at times it gets muffled. The sound also has a tinny quality at times. The music, however, always sounds nice.
The musical soundtrack by Enya is by far the best part of Celts, and the producers of the DVD seem to have realized this: nearly all of the special features have to do with her and her music, rather than the content of the documentary.
Disc 1 has two featurettes. The first,"Gaelic Weekend: A Musical Journey Around Ireland," is a mysterious 30-minute piece that follows an unnamed group of musicians around Ireland, combining music with various scenic shots of the landscape and people. There's no explanation of what this is, and no narrator. The second is a four-minute interview with Enya.
Disc 2 has a 15-minute television clip on Celtic culture, "Nationwide Celtic Connections 5." What this has to do with Celts: Rich Traditions and Ancient Myths is unclear, except that it's on the same topic. We also get a 17-minute featurette, "Val Doonican's Enya Interview and Performance," which, as the title suggests, is a combination of a short interview and footage of Enya singing.
We also get trailers for Building the Great Pyramid, Blue Planet, and The Life of Mammals.
Despite its interesting topic, Celts: Rich Traditions and Ancient Myths falls flat, with disorganization and lack of solid content making this documentary both uninformative and uninteresting. A lackluster transfer means that it's not even particularly attractive to look at. The only good part of the program is Enya's lovely music, but for that, just get one of her CDs. Skip it; there are better documentaries out there.