1,000 years of history squeeze into 10 hours

Review: CNN's ambitious documentary covers 10 centuries and took two years to put together. It's fascinating, but it tries to do too much.

October 06, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Millennium" is as noble a historical documentary as has ever appeared on TV. Too bad it bites off more than it can chew.

A 10-part, 10-hour attempt to weave the world's disparate cultures into one thousand-year-long historical chronicle, "Millennium," which makes its debut at 10 p.m. Sunday on CNN, is laudable in the extreme. The series does not treat western civilization as the be-all and end-all of human history; it introduces viewers to people, places and events most have never heard of; and it visits historic cities and sites more than slightly off the beaten path.

The folks responsible for the series spent more than two years and logged more than 100,000 miles putting it together, and the scope of those efforts is the best thing about the finished project. Within the first two hours alone, "Millennium" visits New Zealand, India, Japan, France and North America.

Those first two chapters take us inside the wondrous churches of Ethiopia, all of them carved out of solid rock. It offers readings from "The Pillow Book" of Sei Shonagon, an 11th-century Japanese diarist whose ruminations on the sexual comings and goings of the imperial palace has become a 20th-century best seller. It relates the wonders of Cordoba, a city in southern Spain that was once the crown jewel of the Islamic Empire, complete with a 400,000-volume library. And it offers wise words from a New Zealander explaining why his aboriginal ancestors trod so lightly on the land they inhabited that scant evidence of their having ever existed remains.

The series also wisely seeks out a theme for each century. Thus, the 11th century, with its cultures butting up against one another, sometimes violently, becomes "Century of the Sword." The 12th, as people concentrated on replacing forests with cities and building huge cathedrals that seemed to stretch their arms toward God, is labeled "Century of the Axe." Although that decision leaves "Millennium" open to charges of oversimplification -- is it really fair to boil 100 years of history down to one word? -- it helps viewers get a handle on the massive amounts of information they're being asked to absorb.

Unfortunately, the wide scope of the series offers little time for anything but a superficial examination of its subject. The segment highlighting "The Pillow Book," for instance, is illuminating enough, but one suspects there was far more to 11th-century Japan than is revealed by an examination of its rulers' sexual peccadilloes. And a segment on the 12th-century city-states of Italy, used to examine the rise of civic pride and regionalism, deserves a more in-depth look than it's given.

The series could also use more expert commentary. Almost all the information in these two opening chapters comes via Ben Kingsley's narration. Weaving some historians into the mix, or talking more to representatives of the native people (like the aboriginal New Zealander who speaks so respectfully of his ancestors), would have added weight and depth to what is being said. As it is, the overall effect is that of a lecture.

Still, "Millennium" is a wonder. When it uses computer animation to reproduce ancient cities and temples, that's as close to re-creating history as anything short of a time capsule is apt to come.

"Millennium" will air on 10 consecutive Sundays, beginning this Sunday. After the opening episode, "Century of the Sword," follows "Century of the Axe" (Oct. 17), "Century of the Stirrup" (Oct. 24), "Century of the Scythe" (Oct. 31), "Century of the Sail" (Nov. 7), "Century of the Compass" (Nov. 14), "Century of the Telescope" (Nov. 21), "Century of the Furnace" (Nov. 28), "Century of the Machine" (Dec. 5) and "Century of the Globe" (Dec. 12).

Silverstein to be honored

WPOC-FM (93.1) Promotion maven Sheila Silverstein is up for a Billboard Magazine Award as Promotion/Marketing Director of the Year among large-market country-music stations. Silverstein has held the post at WPOC for nine years and has won the Billboard Award thrice (1991, 1995 and 1996). The winners will be announced Saturday during an awards ceremony in Miami Beach.

TV's top shows

Here are last week's top TV shows, according to A. C. Nielsen Co. figures:

Rating

1 ER NBC 21.5

2 Frasier NBC 16.3

3 Friends NBC 15.8

4 Stark Raving Mad

NBC 13.4

5 NFL Monday Night Football:

San Francisco at Arizona

ABC 13.3

6 Jesse NBC 12.9

7 Law and Order NBC 12.9

8 60 Minutes CBS 12.5

9 Everybody Loves

Raymond CBS 12.2

10 JAG CBS 11.8

The rating is the percentage of homes equipped with a TV in use.

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