Legacy: The Origins of Civilization
Athena // Unrated // $59.99 // March 30, 2010
Review by Nick Hartel | posted May 1, 2010
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Athena delivers another "vintage" but incredibly enjoyable and informative educational miniseries. Historian Michael Wood hosts, "Legacy: The Origins of Civilization," an early 1990s, five-part miniseries originally produced for public television. Each episode runs nearly an hour in length, but is overflowing with historical facts, stories, both well known and obscure, thoughtful insight and criticism, and a noble attempt to show the connection between differing cultures.

The aspect that is most striking about "Legacy" is the pacing. While Wood is talking for the majority of each program, he isn't merely throwing random fact after random fact at viewers as one would expect from a modern program. He carefully introduces concepts that define civilization through anecdotes that either lead to ideas or key events in the history of a culture; sometimes these anecdotes serve as a segue to a more well known tale that dissolves to the fundamental ideas. For instance in the episode pertaining to China, Wood starts with modern restaurants, leading to an old tale regarding the origins of some mysterious writing. Eventually, Confucius and his philosophies are dominating the focus of the program.

Wood attempts valiantly to show how these important pieces of culture shaped the evolution of the people, cities, and ideas, as well as how many of those pieces of culture have had a global impact. Like any good host, Wood speaks with confidence about his subject, although he can come off as dry at times. This can result in a "tuning out" effect from viewers, which unfortunately hinders their experience of an episode. The focused nature of these episodes really requires the viewers to be active observers and listeners; merely listening to the program in the background will not suffice. Unfortunately, the program loses points as a result. At the end of the day, the program should inspire viewers to pursue interest in the subject, not treat them to a well-produced 100-level college lecture.

Equally deserving of praise and criticism is Wood's allotment of focus on the civilizations. The first two episodes focus on Iraq and India respectively, with religious conflict serving as a thematic link between the two cultures. The series' ability to teach is strongest here with many of the insights and historical facts (at least from my perspective) feeling fresh. On the other hand, I wasn't a fan of both the Aztecs and Mayans being lumped together for a generic episode titled "Central America: The Burden of Time." Likewise, it would have been nice to have more than one episode devoted to Europe or better yet, a look at the Indigenous Australians, whose story I can't recall ever being told by any educational program.

Ultimately, "Legacy" is a worthwhile experience. Wood takes viewers to the places he's talking about, but never turns things into a travelogue or sightseeing show. He's there to give a general feeling for the culture, to see the land and people in plain terms. The concepts he addresses and the alternative approach he employs sets the series apart from the competition. "Legacy" is by no means a perfect series, many of the "modern" references to events are now dated (particularly those to the first Iraq War), but that just adds another layer for the viewer to ponder and think about how much has changed in so little time.


The Video

The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio is what one would expect from an early 90's public television special. Stock footage varies in quality, while footage shot for the show shows signs of video transfer. Colors are slightly washed out and detail is weak. Ultimately it doesn't detract from the quality of the programming, but those looking for visual travelogue quality need to look elsewhere.

The Audio

The English stereo audio track is front heavy with Wood's in-studio narration overpowering. All of Wood's on-location audio varies in quality; when heavy winds are whipping around him, it can be distracting, at times nearly silencing the softly added backing soundtrack and causing some distortion on the higher ends. If Wood finds himself deep in a canyon area, you can hear the change in acoustics, which does set the atmosphere for the location quite effectively.. The majority of the time, it's not that hard to understand what he's trying to say, and only a few audio hiccups (likely a result of the recording equipment) pop in from time to time. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included as well.

The Extras

The lone extra on each disc is a collection of text biographies for influential figures in the civilizations featured, titled "When Giants Walked the Earth." The most substantial extra is the small printed viewers guide that Athena kindly adds with all the releases I've seen thus far. It breaks down key points of each episode and leaves viewers with some questions to ponder. For those wanting to take the next step and learn more, a reading guide is included as well.

Final Thoughts

"Legacy: The Origins of Civilization" serves as a reminder of what educational programming once was and what it should aspire to be today. Michael Wood takes viewers on a nearly five-hour trip through time to find out just what makes a civilization a civilization. The end result is thought provoking, despite being obtuse at times. While the technical presentation is by no means outstanding, if you're looking for a way to learn about other civilizations and their global effects, this is a good place to start. Recommended.

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