History Channel // 2007 // 611 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // January 23rd, 2008
"We're peeling back the layers of time to uncover the cities of the underworld..."
You never know what's just underneath your feet. Depending on where you walk, it could be a bootleggers' den, a World War II bunker, or even the Circus Maximus.
Cities of the Underworld: The Complete Season One takes a look at the underground world that most people overlook.
Cities of the Underworld: The Complete Season One has 13 episodes (plus a bonus episode) on four discs:
"Scotland's Sin City": Underground spaces in Edinburgh provided lairs for body snatchers supplying cadavers for the city's medical schools, unlicensed distilleries, dungeons for captured American sailors, and World War II bunkers. In nearby Gilmerton, the Holy Grail could have been hidden.
"Rome's Hidden Empire": Under the city of Rome, ancient traces of the Circus Maximus, Nero's palace, a basilica, and a fire station can be found.
"Hitler's Underground Lair": Berlin's brewers once kept their barrels of beer in underground chambers. Hitler used the subterranean world for bunkers, air raid shelters, and the start of a highway system.
"Catacombs of Death": Nazis and the Resistance both hid under Paris, not very far apart. The dark underground of the City of Lights also holds catacombs full of bones, sewers, and remnants of Rome's reign. There's even an underground art gallery, its walls covered with graffiti.
"City of Caves": The caves under Budapest are full of hidden rooms once used to hide valuables from tax collectors, and there's even a secret World War II hospital down there. The hot springs are legendary for their therapeutic benefits.
"New York": Secret sites include M42, the power station for Grand Central Terminal, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's private train station. See how engineers prevented flooding after the World Trade Center destruction in 2001.
"London's Lost Cities": Winston Churchill's Paddock was the underground home of the war effort -- with no toilets. The ruins of a Roman bathhouse show how the River Thames has moved over the years.
"Beneath Vesuvius": Naples sits atop layers of destruction from lava and mudslides, not to mention quarries once used for water storage, Nero's theater, catacombs, and a cave filled with indecipherable graffiti.
"Freemason Underground": Explore an underground world of the dead in Boston's Old North Church, underground barracks and a prison at Philadelphia's Fort Mifflin, and an Underground Railroad hidden room in Concord, Mass. -- all built with the involvement of the Masons.
"Dracula's Underground": Get lots of fun facts about Vlad the Impaler as you tour the dungeons of his castles and fortresses in Romania. Vlad himself was held in Huneduora Castle, where he whiled away the hours by impaling bugs and rats.
"Secret Pagan Underworld": Hittites carved out aqueducts, ventilation systems, and millstone defenses in the caves of Turkey. Turkey's underground also holds the first monastery, an inn, and triple arches that inspired a famous architect.
"Underground Bootleggers": Portland's hidden tunnels, once home to shanghaiers, became the nerve center of Prohibition Rose, a madam-turned-bootlegger who never got caught. Today, meth labs pose an explosive danger for sewer workers.
"Rome: The Rise": More underground adventures in the ruins of ancient Rome, this time visiting sewers, catacombs, an underground neighborhood, an early water-purification cistern, and an auditorium.
"Pilot: Istanbul": Istanbul has "entire cities stacked like bricks" underground, thanks to the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. The tour starts with a cistern, and then visits the Hippodrome, Constantine's Great Palace, and a Byzantine dungeon. See how the city preserves underground history while digging new subway tunnels.
If it's "dark and mysterious" and it's underground, it's uncovered here. The show's two hosts -- Eric Geller for the first episodes, with Don Wildman taking over in the eighth segment (Geller comes back for the last episode and pilot) -- are eager explorers of sewers and holes the world over. Over the course of the show, they meet like-minded individuals -- archaeologists and urban explorers -- who act as tour guides while the hosts say things like, "This is like a secret world down here!"
Some of that world is secret -- the exact location of Grand Central's power room, for example, is kept a mystery. In other cases, it's been years of neglect that kept the sites hidden.
I'm not sure why there's a host switch in mid-season, but the replacement of the intense Geller with Wildman takes things down a notch for a slightly quieter show. Both hosts overdo it -- "Fact is more terrifying than fiction" -- but get lots of information and explanation across well.
The show looks as good as you can get with tours of underground chambers. It's supplemented by CGI animation sequences and, in a few episodes, fun facts on the screen like "The burnt ashes of a dove's dung was one of the most popular cures for baldness in 17th Century Edinburgh."
Fans will get a kick out of the 23 minutes of additional scenes. With the exception of a short piece on the first Paris Metro station that would have fit into the series well, they are a bit lighter in tone as Eric Geller riffs on bratwurst and British English, while Don Wildman takes viewers to a UFO museum in Turkey and a flower shop in Romania.
How many cisterns and World War II bunkers can you tour? It could be an infinite number if Cities of the Underground lasts a few years. While it's mostly interesting fare, I don't recommend watching in marathon sessions because the sites could blur after a while.
The hosts know their stuff, even if they seem a bit too excited, and Cities of the Underworld is both interesting and informative. It could also pique your interest in urban exploration -- but please find knowledgeable guides first.
If you're interested, I will advise you to consider that watching people wander around in sewers might not hold up so well in repeat viewings.
Not guilty. These secret worlds might not be so secret anymore, but they're still interesting.
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 611 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Pilot: Istanbul
* Additional Scenes