Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Dark Ages

History Channel ran "The Dark Ages" this past Sunday night. I recorded it and finally got around to watching it over the last couple nights. It was a decent overview, lots of the "stars" of the Dark Ages were discussed (Clovis, Justinian, Charlemagne, Vikings) and, overall, the special may pique the interest of some viewers who will be inspired to delve deeper into any of the number of subjects covered. Particularly strong was the theme of Catholicism as the one constant in the lives of rich and poor, noble and common.

As Jonathan Storm at the Philly Inquirer writes:
The only unifying factor of the time was Christianity, and marauding Muslims almost wiped it out. The Dark Ages ended when Crusaders, dispatched to fight in the Middle East, in part to keep them from savaging peasants in the West, returned with books and knowledge from Turkey, Persia, Egypt and Palestine....

The Roman Catholic Church was the only institution that thrived consistently in Europe during the years between 410, when a disaffected sergeant from the Roman army led the Visigoths ("dirty, sweaty, smelly thugs") in the sack of Rome, and 1099, when the Crusaders got to Jerusalem....

The show focuses on the importance of monks in preserving knowledge, with a segment on the Venerable Bede, who lived in County Durham in what is now northern England, and died in 735 with a library of 500 books, making him "the most educated man in Europe."

Undefended monasteries like Bede's were seen as great treasure troves for the Vikings, who, in an epoch of Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Moors and other barbarians, get special treatment as the biggest boors of The Dark Ages.

Interestingly, given the obvious playing-up of the stabilizing effect of religion, an atheist group has pointed out that the History Channel has inappropriately played up the "Godless" Dark Ages in its ad campaign.

Actually, the Dark Ages does have a somewhat disconnected narrative. As the New York Times reviewer complains:

It is hard to take seriously the premise at the heart of “The Dark Ages,” given how besotted the producers seem with all the era’s gruesomeness. They want us to believe that the miseries beginning in the fifth century and on through to the Crusades were more than the barbaric spectacle they make it seem. The tribal mergers formed to protect citizens from endless bands of marauders, they claim, actually laid the groundwork for the development of the nation-states of modern Europe, centuries later. That may be so, but it is hard to argue with deteriorating limbs, and “The Dark Ages” doesn’t succeed in trying.

But this may be "indicative of the age-old dilemma" of such docu-tainment. As the Variety review observes:

Nevertheless, it's a once-over-very-lightly view of history, with academics doing their best to capture the gloom, violence and desperation of the times, even if some of the scholars question the validity of the term "dark ages" itself.

In a larger sense, "The Dark Ages" is indicative of the age-old dilemma a niche programmer such as the History Channel faces: How to reel in younger viewers without pandering to the point where its core audience -- the one that doesn't recoil at the word "history" as if it were homework -- is alienated.

Until someone solves that conundrum, get those stiff-looking extras mounted on horses, and cue the orchestra.

The fundamental problem is that the History Channel decided to cover 700 years of history in 2 hours. TV is a good but under-utilized medium for presenting sweeping historical narrative and History Channel missed a chance with the "Dark Ages. " It would have made a good mini-series. Imagine, night one "The Fall of Rome," followed by "Barbarian Kings and Byzantium", then "Charlemagne", then "The Vikings," and conclude with "Darkness Lifting." They could keep the theme of the stabilizing force of Christianity throughout. With all of the past specials covering some of these topics, I'm sure it could have been done in an entertaining and cost-effective manner.

In fact, the History Channel is already kinda, sorta fleshing "Dark Ages" out by also running the "Barbarians II" series, which covers the Franks, Lombards, Vandals and Saxons. [I've got the original "Barbarians" (Vikings, Goths, Huns, Mongols) on DVD and found it to be a good series so I've scheduled "BII" to be TiVo'd]. While I realize that both "The Dark Ages" and the "Barbarians II" series are part of History Channel's "Barbarian Week", it's too bad that they didn't decide to go with--at the least--a "Dark Ages Week" instead. As the special shows, the Dark Ages were about a lot more than just Barbarians. Though they are pretty cool!

1 comment:

Melanie said...

I am loving "Barbarian Week", my only complaint is somewhat the same as others have-doesn't go deep or wide enough-but I suppose only so much can be done through the medium of television. It certainly whetted my appetite to read more about these times, so if that was an objective, it succeeded.