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The Christians is an outstanding 13-part documentary series whose DVD incarnation is hampered only by a lackluster transfer. Originally broadcast on Great Britain's ITV in 1977, The Christians takes the documentary form quite seriously. It does not try to create or focus on contrived historical drama. Instead, it utilizes cinematic techniques to present information enriched with deep context as only the best documentaries do. Instead of getting a "story," we see the vast reach of history brought to life in all its unpredictable ups and downs - these variable waves of progress and regress are a big part of what makes the broader topic of history so compelling in the first place.
Each 50-minute episode is dedicated to a topic concerned with the development of Christianity as a human institution - a force that has shaped cultures, societies, and people. As series writer and presenter Bamber Gascoigne says in the newly-shot video introduction to the series, the title is The Christians for a reason. This is not a chronological history of Christianity or of formal Christian institutions. The focus is always on how the religion has manifested itself in the lives of individuals throughout the centuries.
Each episode is a carefully made, well-organized, and thematically coherent film that unfolds in a leisurely but engaging manner. A typical episode begins with Gascoigne narrating the background to that show's topic - discussing, for example, the way that Europe's cities used Christianity as the organizing force that allowed them to fend off invading barbarians (Episode 3: "The Birth of Europe"), or the use of "show business" techniques used to rally public enthusiasm around the Church in the 18th century (Episode 10: "Politeness and Enthusiasm"). A quick survey of the historical landscape of each episode leads to long segments in which Gascoigne's narration takes a backseat to images of Christian art and architecture - and, most importantly, scenes of Christian worship, practice, and life.
The Christians features almost no interview footage; the only other voices captured here are in readings from historical sources, and of people who appear in the footage shot expressly for the series. (Archival footage is only rarely present.) Gascoigne is interested in how Christianity has affected people's lives over the centuries - and how ancient practices have been adapted in contemporary societies. Therefore, the visual emphasis is on the here and now. We are treated to long sequences that show Ethiopian and Syrian monks. We spend some time looking at church services in dozens of countries around the world. We see how Christianity managed to survive in Cold War Soviet Union (an issue very current at the time the documentary was produced). The approach of the series is to emphasize the role that Christianity continues to play in shaping the course of the world.
Gascoigne presents Christian beliefs and institutions as being very human in origin, a point of view that may annoy the faithful. As willing as he is to discuss the many points throughout history when Christianity was an asset to cultural and social development, Gascoigne does not soft-soap its transgressions against human progress, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.
Over its thirteen episodes, The Christians presents a detailed learning experience, shot and edited with great care. I've seen several long documentaries that address the history of Christianity, but this one stays focused on the people who built and practice the faith, rather than focusing merely on the Apostles, Saints, Popes, and other authority figures. This "people's history" of Christianity is down-to-earth, informative, and probably the best documentary on the subject.
Unfortunately, the full-screen transfer of The Christians is one of the worst I've seen. The series appears to have been shot on film, but time has not been kind to it. About half the episodes look extremely washed-out, as if they were rescued from some kind of acid torture. These damaged, whitened episodes feature very low contrast to the point of being distracting. Other episodes look better, but are merely passable. All of this is a shame because the series features some very nice photography and graceful editing. I am glad Athena (a brand of Acorn Media) has released this series on DVD; I wish some time had been taken with the transfer.
A serviceable but in no way noteworthy mono soundtrack renders the original score - which is not bad at all - a flat, tinny sonic blur.
The bonus content is minimal. A new introduction from Bamber Gascoigne briefly looks back at the series. There are also text biographies of key figures in Christian history and a couple of still galleries. A 16-page Viewer's Guide is geared toward educators who wish to spur classroom discussion.
As a documentary that thoughtfully explores a complex and rich subject, The Christians is without peer. The probing yet laid-back style of host Bamber Gascoigne makes for an engaging and entertaining look at Christianity in a truly global context. The poor technical presentation of this otherwise excellent series knocks my overall rating down a notch. Recommended.