People call Judge Kristin Munson an Iron Maiden—probably because she's cold and filled with spikes.
"Having a chance to rebuild inventions from history and actually be able to try them out—reliving history—is pretty cool."
Especially when you can use them to pick on your buddies.
Facts of the Case
The Iron Maiden. The Rack. The Catherine Wheel. Even people who didn't pass their history classes recognize those names. Reconstructive archeologists normally rebuild ancient weapons, punishments, and torture devices like these as a hands-on history lesson to see what made previous generations tick. The Surviving History crew aren't so much trained and educated historians as they are a company that builds gruesome props for haunted houses.
Ever since The History Channel ditched the documentaries and became History, the subject matter and editing techniques have started to cater more and more to ADD-afflicted frat boys. What would have been a learning experience that tickled morbid curiosities a few years ago, is now Junkyard Wars meets Jackass.
"Cool! Pointy objects! Blood and guts! Uh-oh, book-learnin'. Quick! Over here! Something Shiny! Hey, a chick! Chicks have boobs! Wait, A historian? She's not hot! Oh, snap! Stuff on fire!"
All that's missing are some killer guitar shreds (those come later, during the Shame Flute segment). Forty minutes of this makes me feel like I'm trapped in a pinball machine, and not that cool one from Sesame Street with the Pointer Sisters singing me sequential numbers.
Each episode of Surviving History sees the team at ScareFactory building four or five historical inventions, everything from repeating crossbows to the Pear of Anguish. The show's scattershot style wouldn't be so bad if each episode had a theme like Witch Hunts or Medieval Warfare, but the show is constantly jumping all over the historical map, cutting from Ancient Greek novelties to The Spanish Inquisition to keep viewers from changing the channel. Most of the build segments are kept to 10 minutes, so the facts on each device are so basic that I could watch an episode and not remember what I'd seen five minutes later, and this is a subject that involves dislocated limbs and decapitation.
When your hosts are a company that advertises a "Torture Series" of animated displays on their Website, you know you're not going to be getting people with Peter Coyote's narrative chops or David McCullough's gravitas. Except for Brian—who appears to be the one cast member legitimately interested in the history behind the devices and can be funny without turning what he's doing into a complete joke—there's no disguising that the rest of the ScareFactory employees are basically rebuilding deadly weapons so they can goof around with them. I guess nobody told these guys that Nerf's been making some of this stuff for years.
There's nothing wrong with having fun with the task at hand, but for several projects the builders play fast and loose with the measurements and building techniques, which pretty much negates the whole history part of the show. Cut that out and you're left with a bunch of tattooed tough guys who never built something they couldn't slap a skull on and turn into an extended prank. Witness: the Branks.
Also called "The Scold's Bridle," a branks is a metal cage that bolts around an outspoken woman's head and gags her so she can be led around on a chain by her husband. In the hands of the Surviving History team, a device designed to humiliate a victim into submission becomes an excuse for such hi-jinks as making the muzzled test subject answer the phone and banging on the steel to make a lot of noise. Hi-larious.
After each device has been successfully built and sufficiently screwed around with, the show tries to regain some educational footing by following up the testing with a volunteer's somber reflection on the experience. These are extremely hard to swallow when they manufacture far worse for a living and give the same basic (obviously paraphrased) speech:
"I learned something today. I learned that human misery isn't very nice and by putting myself on/in that device in a heavily supervised capacity, for very little time, with absolutely no consequences beyond some slight discomfort, I can say that humankind can be completely oblivious to the suffering of others as long as they find it entertaining. I'm going to think about that a lot, when I'm arranging the flailing, animatronic bodies on the Mutilated Mobile."
The Surviving History disc sports a 2.0 mix that's fairly loud and nicely saturated color transfer, especially the parchment effects in the illustrated history sections. Bonus features come in the form of additional footage, which appears to be scrapped episode intros and—what's this? Actual history? That's where it was hiding!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A storybook device is used to reveal the origins of each shop project, and the suggestive illustrations and 3-D Models reveal just enough to let your imagination fill in the rest, which is far scarier then watching a stuffed dummy take some abuse. Finding out the obscure and diabolic tales behind punishments like the Brazen Bull helps block out some of the douchebaggery involved in turning torture devices into toys.
Surviving History wants too make history fun and exciting for people who otherwise might not be interested, but the violent subject matter doesn't need this kind of enhancing. I popped this into my player to indulge my inner sadist and wound up feeding my inner masochist. If you're into shows like American Chopper, Surviving History will be right up your alley; if you're interested in weapons and torture devices, you'd learn more by Googling them.
Everyone involved here is guilty. Since they obviously like doom and gloom, the defendants are sentenced to six months in a pastel-painted cell, surrounded by kittens and teddy bears.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Additional Footage
Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.