A major television documentary on Christopher Columbus is bound to be sailing into troubled waters, filled with the shoals of fervently held mythology, buffeted by the storms of political correctness.
PBS starts this dangerous journey Sunday night at 8 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, with the first two of the seven hours of "Columbus and the Age of Discovery." NTC Two-hour segments will follow on Monday and Tuesday nights, with the final hour Wednesday. All start at 8 p.m.
Though a craft of this size is by nature a rather hard-to-handle beast, this one makes it through the rough seas well-ballasted by solid historical research from a panel of advisers that includes Franklin Knight of Johns Hopkins. Its wheel is in the firm control of executive producer Zvi Dor-Ner.
But Dor-Ner's excellent approach is to try at every turn to put you, the viewer, at the place and time where Columbus and his contemporaries found themselves, to see the political landscape they saw, the geographic formations they encountered, the seas they faced, the ships they sailed, the knowledge they used.
He begins by doing this physically, taking you to various locations as they exist today -- from Genoa to China, to the Portuguese islands where Columbus lived to the Caribbean islands where he made landfall -- looking for people and places and ceremonies and such that still echo Columbus' time. And then he places you historically using experts and commentary to explain what these areas were like 500 years ago.
The story has many more twists and turns than the standard textbook version of Columbus' voyages ever related. In the first hour, for example, you learn the tremendous impact that the rise of Islam and its takeover of Constantinople had on Columbus' future course. It meant that Genoa was now overshadowed, leading to his departure from his hometown, and that the pressure was on European countries to find another route to the riches of the Orient.
The second hour looks at the birth of the idea of sailing west to reach the East in Columbus' mind, how the extent of 15th century navigational and map-making skills led him to that conclusion, and the beginnings of his decades-long search for patronage to prove his theories.
Monday night, the series' video cameras follow a re-creation of the voyage in reconstructed boats, using Columbus' journals to evoke the fears and mysteries that his sailors faced. The segment then looks at the islands where European man made the contact with this continent that would open the doors to the future.
The mixture of good and evil that this meeting caused is the subject of Tuesday's first hour, while the second looks at the complex interchange between Europe and the Americas, a commerce that would forever change the face of both lands.
Wednesday's final hour follows Columbus' fourth and final voyage as it seeks to come to terms with the man himself and his various images in the many different cultures his explorations touched.
Though the use of videotape can be a bit jarring, it does bring home the fact that Columbus and his contemporaries saw these sights just as we see things today. And the sudden appearances of Columbus expert Mauricio Obregon on camera are clumsily included in the overall flaw. These are minor quibbles about excellent historical documentaries.
There is a tendency in our culture to see things in black and white. We love heroes and villains, good and bad, cut and dried. For centuries, Columbus was in the good category, a visionary explorer who brought our civilization to this backward land. But in recent decades, as there has been a move away from our ethnocentric viewpoint, the push has been to put Columbus on the bad side of the ledger, at best a lucky entrepreneur who stumbled into history, at worst a callous conqueror who sowed death, destruction and oppression in his path.
By trying to put the viewer into the shoes and boats and moccasins and minds of those who were affected by these voyages, "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" avoids these simplistic categorizations. Columbus was a great visionary and a lucky entrepreneur and a callous conqueror. He was a man of his time, his sight and knowledge as limited and circumscribed by 15th century knowledge and opinions and prejudices as ours will seem to be to those looking back five centuries from now.
Even in its title -- "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" -- this series risks political incorrectness. After all, Columbus didn't discover America, millions of people already lived here and knew all about it.
But after you see these seven hours, you realize that this was an age of discovery, that it went both ways as two civilizations that didn't know the other existed discovered one another. And together, for better or worse, they created a new world. What this documentary seeks to do is not praise or condemn that creation, but understand it.