“Do you remember where you were when…?”
“Everything changed forever with…”
“Today will be a day that will live in…”
Every generation has these moments, when the world it knew is forever and indelibly altered, signal flashpoints that capture popular consciousness and become immortalized in history as watershed dates. June 28, 1914. April 26, 1986. December 17, 1903. August 31, 1997. April 4, 1968. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. August 6, 1945.
Popular history tends to fetishize this sort of specificity, giving the dates and the events they denote often inordinate significance, at the expense of clear understanding of historical context and of the big picture. But they gain primacy for a reason—they represent an easy-to-comprehend coalescence of complex and confusing historical forces, a valuable shorthand for important historical events the full implications of which is often too mysterious, too terrifying, or just too huge to fully take in.
The first season of the BBC series Days That Shook the World provides a Cook’s tour of many these days of “seismic” (their word, not mine) significance, the days that changed and gave shape to the course of Western history in the 20th century (the program maintains a solid Euro-American emphasis, for better or worse). A fair number of their selections are rather obvious: the assassination of Kennedy; the Apollo moon landing; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But other choices are rather inspiring in their…well, not exactly obscurity, that’s not the right word, but their lack of ubiquity on exactly these kinds of lists. The freeing of Nelson Mandela; Kristallnacht; the coronation of Queen Elizabeth; the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb: dates that aren’t exactly always at the top of popular consciousness, but represent moments of great importance.
Each hour-long episode (there are 13 total in the first season) presents a pairing of two such days, with the idea of linking them historically as events in kind, or as logical bookends for a particular era or chain of events. Again, some of these pairing are obvious, while others are again more inspired. And this latter bit is the series’ one strength, in drawing connections a bit subtler than necessarily would occur to one at first. Sure, it’s easy enough to see the line between Point A and Point B when considering the Wright Brothers’ first man-powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and the Apollo 11 landing, or Fermi’s risky first controlled nuclear reaction in 1942 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 40 years later.
But better is seeing a certain grim poetry in linking the bullet that killed Archduke Ferdinand and started the First World War to the bullet that Hitler killed himself with, symbolically ending the Second World War. Or the juxtaposition of Martin Luther King’s assassination, representing the nadir of race relations in one country, with the freeing of Nelson Mandela, representing the birth of a new hope in another. Or the coverage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, one of the first great media events of the television age, finding a grim reflection in the coverage of the death of Diana, another great media event which signaled a low point for a celebrity/royalty obsessed tabloid culture born of this media age.
And well, this all looks good on paper. But in execution, it’s a whole other matter entirely, and this is where the show stumbles—not terribly, but enough that it is a problem more often that it’s not. Instead of going down the tried and true documentary route, with talking heads and academic experts and interviews with people who were there, Days That Shook the World takes a gamble and opts for the dramatic re-creation route. Mostly the purview of Court TV and news magazine specials about sensationalist crimes, re-creations tend to come off as very…um, amateurish (that’s being charitable). Little more than visual placeholders, the actors and action are generally just cheap props for the overriding narration, which tells you what’s going on, why, and by whom anyway.
But my problem is not with the inherent cheesiness of this device. It can, and often does, work, especially in an educational setting (I can imagine this series being great in high school history classes). No, the problem is context. The series’ m.o. is to show you events as they happened, hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. No build up, no background, just the facts. Even that is fine. In fact, if this device works here at all, it’s in showing you how mundane some of these events really were, when stripped of 20/20 hindsight assessment, when actually played out hour by hour. I mean, not all—some are simply truly momentous (landing on the moon—hello?!)—but, say, the final hours of Hitler, or the final hours of Nixon’s presidency, are simply brilliant in their banality.
No, the problem here is in the assumption, in this taking for granted, that we, the audience, know why the event is significant, that we know the context, that we know all the historical forces at work here. I mean, I know why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is important (I hope so, since I studied European history at university), but if you, general audience member, didn’t, or thought they were talking about the Scottish indie dance-rock band instead, I’m sure you’d wonder what all the fuss was about, and how killing this one man (or band, ha!) ignited a war that engulfed all of Europe. And here’s where the series falls flat on its face too often, since it just can’t, given its limited tactical scope, provide the sort of larger picture sweep that the series needs to justify itself, at least to succeed beyond being a classroom tool.
But I guess that the series almost has to make this assumption, then, given its entire premise. I mean, if the days chosen truly did shake and change the world, then no prior explanation is needed, right? Everyone should just know why, almost by osmosis. And if they do need explaining, then the days weren’t all that momentous to begin with. I guess there’s no winning here, though several of the episodes do manage to rise above this limitation and be genuinely affecting.
The half hour devoted to the Chernobyl disaster presents a heartbreaking tragedy of human recklessness run amok, the chain reaction of human error which led to the chain reaction of the meltdown being almost perversely perfect in its complementariness. The definite high point, as it were, of the series is the recreation of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (the only event to get its own full hour, rightly so, given that there’s simply no equivalent for it to be paired with, either in the 20th century, or probably any other). Here the series’ shortcomings elsewhere work in its favor, capturing the tense, nerve-wracking moments for the American pilots on the Enola Gay before and after deployment, and intercutting them with the imagined quiet moments on the ground before the bomb hit, as well as the hell on earth cataclysm that followed. If here the series breaks a bit from total historical accuracy in this moment and lapses into imaginative speculation, all is forgiven in the very palpable emotional response it provokes.