Literally and by design, it's the show of the millennium. It's even called "Millennium," an attempt to condense 1,000 years of world history into 10 hours of good television. The attempt succeeds, sometimes resoundingly.
To judge from sampling several of the 10 hour-long episodes--including the premiere, airing tomorrow night at 10 on CNN--the series is full of promise and power, stunningly illustrated and hauntingly scored (with music by Richard Blackford). It is definitely not just a parade of charts, graphs and etchings, but neither is it glitzed-up and hyperactive.
In a way, it comes full circle, since narrator (and great actor) Ben Kingsley says in the first chapter that in the 11th century China was "the central country of the world." The last chapter, to air Dec. 12, covers our own little century and finds that on the eve of the millennium changeover, China, with its 1 billion people and burgeoning industry and technology, is poised to be "a 21st-century giant." Perhaps it will even dominate the next century as the United States did the 20th.
And then again, the whole planet could blow up tomorrow and the question of who dominates what will be spectacularly irrelevant.
As Kingsley says in the introduction, the series presents "history from a global perspective, not through the eyes of the West" as is usually done in English-language documentaries on millennial topics. North America isn't even mentioned until the second episode, which covers the 12th century and airs Oct. 17.
The premiere concentrates on Arabia, India, Japan and Europe, as well as China. Boundaries having shifted over the years, the holy city of Jerusalem is included in the "Europe" section. We provincially associate the word "technology" only with the 1900s, but China had cutting-edge technologies of its own in the 11th century--canals to link its waterways, the compass, printing and gunpowder.
It was also the beginning of such abiding Eastern traditions as dim sum and acupuncture.
History on television doesn't have to be dull, but it often is. By producing "Millennium" on a lavish scale, with camera crews dispatched to 28 countries, CNN has made the series state-of-the-art without making it MTV-ish. Computer animation is used sparingly but ingeniously: At one point it shows the evolution of a caliph's palace in Islamic Spain. In the last episode, it's used to depict the rise of newly industrialized nations along the Pacific Rim.
Many other visual aids are brought in, and effectively. Ancient Hindu myths come to life through clips from a TV soap opera recently shown in India. Motion pictures exist for 20th-century events only; among the judiciously selected clips are color shots of Adolf Hitler cuddling a little girl; a huge Soviet pageant--also in color--staged for the benefit of fellow tyrant Joseph Stalin; propaganda film (not clearly labeled as such) of Mao Tse-tung and his revolution, and still-shocking footage shot by film director George Stevens and others of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.
Statistics are supposedly dull, but in that final program, staggering numbers are tallied: 22 million dead in Stalin's slave labor camps. More than 50 million dead in World War II, 6 million of them Jews in Nazi death camps; 30 million dead as a result of China's monstrous famine; 6 billion people now living on this whirling, tipsy planet.
There's even sex and violence in the course of the series. Indeed, how could you tell the story of the millennium without it? During a visit to India in Part 1, the camera lingers over extremely explicit erotic sculptures on the wall of an old temple. We are also given considerable detail about the mating rituals of 11th-century Japan.
As for violence, battle footage apparently culled from foreign-made feature films shows warriors waging "holy wars"--a term that has to be one of humanity's more absurd and obscene oxymorons. Seminal figures trot by, from Confucius to Freud to Elvis to Darwin, who informed his fellow humans that they were just "well-adapted apes." Freud comes along near the beginning of the 20th century to help people confront "the suppressed rage and fear of people adrift in a changing world." My, how things haven't changed as the century ends.
Two years of work went into the series and it shows. The executive producers are Jeremy Isaacs and, for CNN, Pat Mitchell, with individual episodes produced, directed and written by various filmmakers. Closing credits say the series is based on a "concept" of media magnate (and CNN founder) Ted Turner. Hmm. That could have consisted of Ted one day saying, "Let's do a series on the millennium" and some yes-person jotting that down.
It's obviously only natural to do a series on the millennium now, yet it's not the kind of thing that the commercial broadcast networks would dream of undertaking. No, no, there'd be too much fear that people wouldn't watch, that people aren't really interested in the world--especially a world not seen from an exclusively Western viewpoint.
One purpose of the series, as stated by Kingsley in the opening moments, is to show "how the separate worlds" described in each episode "became one world" before the millennium ends. Marshall McLuhan said technology would make the world a "global village," but has it? Or are countries still largely interested mainly--like the United States--in themselves? Producers of the network evening newscasts fear airing any foreign news that isn't catastrophic in nature.
We're not a global village yet, and too little American TV looks at the world in global terms. Here, however, is a glorious exception. CNN's "Millennium" looks backward, but implicitly looks forward, too. It's an engrossing and imposing television event.