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The Shape of the World

(PBS; US DVD: 4 Aug 2009)

A friend of mine once said in response to the oft-quoted truism about what a small world it is “No, the world is a very big place. We just live small lives within it.” Though he was referring at the time to the state in which we found ourselves, he was right – the world is a very, very big place, and mapping it is an epic feat that has being going on from the depths of antiquity to the present day. The scope of the PBS miniseries The Shape of the World reflects the enormity of the task it sets out to explore.


Crafting a six-hour miniseries that aims to understand nothing less than the entire history of how we see our world, and all the scientific, religious and political ramifications inherent therein, is one heck of a daunting task, and one that the producers take an admirable swing at. But even in six hours, The Shape of the World still manages to feel incomplete, perhaps due to it’s often meandering nature and yen for exploring unconnected threads of historical trivia.


The Shape of the World follows the history of maps and map making from ancient times, when maps were a tool for drawing not only the world in which we lived, but just as importantly the world beyond, tracing the evolution of maps from sacred texts to the grids on which we live our lives, the maps which let us find our place in the world. The Shape of the World throws into sharp relief the fact that mapping is a natural human instinct; it tames the outside world, and gives us a sense of our place within it. It satisfies a very basic human need to know where we are and, through this, who we are.


But where maps once showed sea serpents and dog faced men, manticores, pygmies and cannibals, we can now put an actual place (and depictions of the things that live there) to almost everything. With this new knowledge comes a renewed sense of our own smallness, a finely honed understanding of just how limited our concept of the world really is, too frequently accompanied by an understandable sense of xenophobia.


Where once we found the world a frightening place because we knew so little about it, we now know keenly just how much there is too fear. It says nothing good about human nature that, in a time when we know more about our surroundings and our neighbors than we ever have, our instinct is to shut ourselves off, to define ourselves by what makes us different, be it our lunch menu, our skin color, or our health care plan.


The history of cartography is, in a close to literal sense, the history of the entire world, and it is this fact that finds this documentary covering an amount of territory that is ultimately too big. The Shape of the World takes a number of surprising and entertaining detours into the span of human history. Sadly, this also makes for a meandering, sometimes aimless film experience. The filmmaking itself is often uneven, with stories of adventures, explorers and discovery holding viewers’ attention for just long enough to get to the next explanation of an ancient mapping technique or obscure feudal conflict. For every story about a fascinating and unappreciated historical personality, there is an exposition on technical aspects that numbs parts of your brain so thoroughly they will never feel again.


It doesn’t help that, almost 20 years past it’s original production, The Shape of the World feels its age, seeming exceptionally simple and bare bones in its execution. It’s well done, of course, but it’s not as visually stimulating as more recent, higher budget documentaries.


One thing that is inarguably perfect and fitting is that The Shape of the World is narrated by Patrick Stewart, and after watching the entire thing, I am amazed that it remains legal to make any sort of voice over that does not feature Patrick Stewart. If you can say you don’t love hearing absolutely anything read by Patrick Stewart, I’m prepared to call you a liar. I’m prepared to say that you’re still uncomfortable with how much you love the satiny yet commanding timbre of Patrick Stewart’s voice and that is sad. It is making you sick inside, and that sickness is turning you into a lying liar who lies.


For all of its fine moments, and there are plenty, The Shape of the World lacks the sort of focus or narrative that lets viewers really sink their teeth into one topic. Its coverage of such a wide variety of topics as this takes on is often interesting, but it’s cost to the overall structure is ultimately too high. While the historical asides can imbue much needed life into often dry subject matter, these same asides leave a viewer too often wondering “Wait, what were we talking about?”


In total, watching The Shape of the World leaves one with the same sensation as talking to a very smart, slightly too drunk professor – a frequently illuminating exercise that rambles off down wild tangents and finally proves more frustrating than it’s worth, leaving you searching the room desperately for an excuse to leave the room. Not because you don’t like the conversation – just because you need a break. For this reason, I recommend enjoying this series in segments, rather than settle in for a marathon viewing.

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