Appellate Judge James A. Stewart believes the Earth is something sketched out on parchment by ancient thinkers.
"Their answers are not so important. What counts is that they asked certain questions."
One of the experts quoted in The Shape of the World made the above comment about the ancient Greeks who first tried to figure out the Earth's shape. One considered it a raft, while another envisioned "a pie suspended in the air"—proof that you shouldn't ponder great questions until after you've eaten. Eventually, Pythagoras figured out that the Earth is round through his observations about musical pitch, and Ptolemy created his Geographia of the world as he knew it, with a few lucky or unlucky guesses.
The Shape of the World looks at the shape of those studies of the world, from ancient times to today, in six parts, hosted by Patrick Stewart:
• "Heaven and Earth"
• "Secrets of the Sea"
• "Staking a Claim"
• "Pictures of the Invisible"
• "The Writing on the Screen"
You'll see a lot of maps in The Shape of the World. Even if that's not a thrill, the documentary is visually stunning, using everything from reenactment to film clips to tours of Amsterdam's city hall to illustrate its points. There are talking heads, of course, but not so much that it gets boring. At one point, it felt like a stretch to show a recent Frankfurt book fair as Patrick Stewart is talking about an early atlas introduced in Frankfurt, but most of the visuals are chosen wisely. There's an abrupt shift in "Pictures of the Invisible," as the documentary comes into the modern era and becomes a sort of gee-whiz look at modern technology. The last two episodes feel a little less unique, but are still interesting.
Stewart makes a good narrator, sounding knowledgeable while letting the story come to the forefront. I'll admit it's amusing to hear Capt. Picard explaining where the term "ship's log" came from, but I didn't think much about Stewart's sci-fi career as I listened to his narration. In the text interview accompanying the set, Stewart says he saw "a tremendous sense of adventure and bravery on virtually every page" of the script. That may not be true, because there's simply a lot of information to convey. Still, his dramatic adroitness comes in handy, as when he describes the dropping of a heavy, expensive piece of surveying equipment from the peak of a sacred Indian building; I felt like I was seeing it, even without a visual reenactment.
As you'd expect, the new material filmed for the documentary looks good, while the quality of the many stock bits varies widely. Sound quality was good.
My main complaint about the documentary is that there's way too much going on for just six parts. Each unit packs in a lot, and the filmmakers aren't helpful in putting key words and concepts on the screen so you can read them as well as take them in aurally. Switching to the modern era for the last part adds to that crammed feeling. Thankfully, the extras help. The main DVD extra is "The Chartbusters," text bios on each disc that tell the stories of key figures in the story of geography, people like Jacques Cassini, the head of the Paris Observatory, and John Snow, who helped stop a cholera epidemic with his maps. A booklet summarizes the key points and offers questions to ponder, with extra information on mapmaking tools and ancient myths. Text bios of Patrick Stewart and series editor Simon Berthon are also included.
Athena has put together a good package with The Shape of the World. The documentary isn't perfect, but the extras help to make it useful for anyone studying maps and geography. If you're like the thinker who pondered floating pies, you could be hungry for more—and that's the idea.
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