Out now are two historical documentary series that explore the stories of people from the past, from ancient times through today:
First we have The Story of China, written and hosted by the gold-standard-making historian Michael Wood. In this six-part documentary about the oldest continuous state on earth, Wood follows the stories of characters who formed China’s history and cultural identity, including those who led the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties from 1500 BC to the twentieth century along with leaders in science, literature, and revolutionary political movements. A sprawling and vibrant story (charmingly told in Wood’s posh British accent), The Story of China brings viewers face-to-face with the likes of The First Emperor, Xuanzang (famed Buddhist traveler), Su Song (often referred to as “China’s Leonardo da Vinci”), Li Qingzhao (a female poet), and Mao Zedong (the Communist revolutionary also known as “Chairman Mao”), among many others. On his historical journey, Wood also examines the places where these stories took place, taking viewers back in time to see the Silk Road, the Yellow River, the Grand Canal, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and other amazing places that were the backdrop of China’s journey over the last four thousand years. If you just want to check out the series (and haven’t caught it live on PBS), you can currently watch it online at PBS.org (although this will most likely be a short-lived option, so if you want to check it out for free, do it asap). For those who want to have it forever and always, the entire documentary is now out on both DVD and Blu-ray and also has some bonus mini featurettes about the challenges (and fun) of filming the series, including “Xi’an City Walls”, “A Crane and a Goddess,” “Anyone for Coffee?”, “The Pleasures of Filming,” and “A Noodle Bar”.
So on to purchase options…which are some of the wackiest I’ve seen to date. As of this writing, Amazon says it has the Blu-ray (priced at $39.93) available on July 9 (but when you click on it just shows a blank image and labels the set as a DVD—-so purchase at your own risk) and the DVD (priced at $18.93) available now but set to “ship in one to four weeks” (even at Prime shipping). Amazon also offers a digital purchase streaming option for $1.99 SD/$2.99 HD for the different one-hour episodes, which is a good option pricing-wise, but presently it only offers parts one through four (this will likely expand after all the episodes have aired on television). Both the DVD and Blu-ray are currently available on PBS.org (where both formats are priced at $29.99…not sure why). On this one, therefore, it looks like if you want it in hard copy (and unless you want to wait 1-4 weeks for DVD availability on Amazon to save some coin) the best current offer is actually from Barnes and Noble’s online store, where you can snag the Blu-ray for $25.69 and the DVD for $27.77 (yes, the DVD is more than the Blu-ray). As I said, pretty whacky, but if you’re a history buff it’s worth it to get your hands on this series.
Next we have Mummies Alive from the Smithsonian Channel, which takes the 4,000 years of history mentioned above and adds a millennium on top to examine the stories of mummies from around the globe. While records as far back as Ptolemaic Greece show our long-lived interest in mummies (including their widespread sale as curiosities for entertainment or novelty value), most of what we consider “scientific” studies of this method of preservation (and those who have undergone it) began in 1901 with studies conducted by professors at the Government School of Medicine in Cairo. Soon after Grafton Elliot Smith and Howard Carter used the only X-ray machine in Cairo to do deeper examinations of the mummified remains of Thutmose IV in 1903. Carter, as you may recall, was the man who headed the expedition that led to the discovery of Tutankhamun (King Tut)’s tomb in 1922, which made the world explode with interest in mummies and the secrets they held.
Out now is Mummies Alive: Season One, which includes five one-hour episodes that put the spotlight on particular mummies as scientists use the 21st-century tools at their disposal to unlock the mysteries of the past. With only a little over a century having elapsed since those first studies, it’s amazing how far science has come: with modern techniques (including cutting-edge CGI, CT imaging technology, and state-of-the-art virtual autopsy techniques), the scientists can not only provide a good estimate of a mummy’s current age, but also the age at which they died, what they did for work, where they lived, what they ate, and the manner of their death. The main mummies mentioned in the series include “Ötzi the Iceman” (a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in a glacier in the Italian Alps), “Sylvester” (a mummy from the Wild West on display at a Seattle curiosity shop since the 1950s), “The Inca Maiden” (the mummy of a 14-year old girl found on top of a 22,000-foot volcano in South America who also holds the distinction of being the best-preserved mummy in the world), Iron Age mummies unearthed in an Irish peat bog, the mummy of a mutilated Egyptian pharaoh, and the mummified remains of a resident of Herculaneum who died laden with weapons, gold, and silver as the city perished under the wrath of the volcanic eruption.
Mummies Alive: Season One is available now on DVD (you can score it on Amazon for $16.32) or you can purchase episodes or the entire season digitally (for $2.99 and $12.99 respectively). Without the pull of any disc-specific extras, this may be a good one to just do the streaming option, but if you’re a teacher or someone else who wants to be able to share the information contained therein, the DVD price isn’t bad considering the five hours of content.