Smithsonian Channel // 2005 // 200 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 23rd, 2009
Revealing the mysteries of the ancient gods.
As History (formerly the History Channel) becomes the channel for bad reality TV with some actual history scattered about here and there, viewers who crave historical television turn to other alternatives. The Smithsonian Channel, a new cable network for HD subscribers, is attempting to fill that gap. Sometimes, as with Remembering Vietnam, they do a pretty good job. Sometimes, as with The Lost Gods, they take an existing show and modify it, and not in a good way.
The Lost Gods was originally a five-part series that aired on Canadian and Irish television in 2005, hosted by Christy Kenneally. All five episodes are included here, and it's an intelligent and fascinating series. It discusses the religious history of five civilizations: the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Incas, and the Celts. It doesn't actually explain what the gods they believed in were so much as explain how religion interacted with their political and social culture. So, for instance, rather than recite what gods the Greeks believed in, Kenneally explores how the corrupt priests at Delphi used the oracles to extract tribute from politicians to tell them what they wanted to. Similarly, the worship of Osiris democratized Egypt by letting commoners into the afterlife, previously the province only of royalty. The episode on the Incas is the best, profiling a society that was as complex and powerful as any of the more celebrated Greek or Roman ones, but is too often ignored or glossed over. Though it might have been a bit more useful to get a detailed description of these societies' religion, the episodes do have some intriguing historical revelations and plenty of beautiful and detailed cinematography of archaeological sites, so it's hard to quibble much. Besides, much of that information is already available in so many sources.
If that were all that this DVD included, it would be enough. Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, the suits at the Smithsonian Channel decided that Kenneally was not adequate for American audiences. So also included here is a "movie," which consists of Kenneally-free snippets from four of the five shows (the Incas are, not surprisingly, completely ignored) edited together into a 70-minute program with new Americanized narration. This proves to be a singularly misguided decision, because this long-form presentation makes almost no sense at all. It meanders from topic to topic without ever covering any one in depth, so you'll forget anything that is said the minute the show is over. What's worse, it's so hard to follow that you'll have already tuned out long before then. On the five-part show, the relations that each civilization had with the others, such as how the Greeks conquered the Egyptians, is explained clearly. On this long-form version, the relationships are jumbled together so confusingly you won't understand how you can get from one section to the next.
All of this isn't helped by the DVD's bewildering menu screen. The first option is for viewers to select "Play Movie," but then they'll get the inferior long-form edit, and the "Scene Selection" just allows viewers to pick scenes from it. The option for "Episode Selection," which is third, is the one that viewers who watch this DVD should choose. The original episodes, when watched as a whole, are far easier to understand and enjoy, and are not that much longer than the long-form version. By including the weaker long version, Smithsonian has actually lessened the value of the DVD. It might also have been a good idea to include any extras, even some text-based ones, to explain what some of the gods mentioned on this show were.
The show does look and sound great. The full-screen transfer is gorgeous,
full of vibrant colors and little grain or noise. There is an option for either
a 5.1 surround mix or a stereo mix, but both sound identical, so it's not clear
what the point of having two mixes is. The great transfer does make this DVD at
least worth a look for anyone curious about ancient civilizations, especially
since the original series is quite entertaining. Ignore the new edit, which is
unwatchable, and hope that Smithsonian has learned its lesson about what
American viewers can enjoy. The Lost Gods is not guilty, but Smithsonian
Channel should know better than to fix what wasn't broken in the first place.
Any more misguided decisions like that and they'll be no better than History.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Smithsonian Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 200 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated