It’s very easy to name-drop everything one will learn from watching this collection front-to-back (don’t worry, I will), but Engineering an Empire, hosted by Peter Weller, comes down to this: a visual History 201 class taught by RoboCop. If that idea excites you as much as it did me, you won’t be disappointed.
This History Channel documentary series on the marvels of engineering throughout the ages outlines more than the buildings, the bridges, the cathedrals, and the obviously prestigious architecture from historical cultures. It delves extensively to prove that equally important to cultural development were the pilings, the causeways, the channels, and the weaponry which pushed civilization after civilization into a growing enlightenment. Episode after episode offers names and innovations that can simply overwhelm the brain if presented too rapidly: Alexander’s siege towers, Darius’ 1,500-mile stone road connecting the entire Persian empire, and the artificial islands of sticks and mud, called chinampas, constructed all around the piling-infused Aztec city of Tenochititlan, are presented with brilliancy and competence.
I won’t spoil this by saying too much, but one episode features a ridiculous tomb, complete with an expansive miniature of the entire Chinese empire with flowing mercury rivers and constellations made out of pearls in the ceiling – all under a 400-foot-tall man-made mountain – created in the time of Christ. Each new hour adds new experts and professors from different universities around the world. Even Weller particularly proves himself an expert in a variety of fields.
Though not the main attraction, actor Peter Weller does wonders for the show. His perpetual, exuberant charisma is apparent whenever he’s on the screen and his love of the subject matter shines in every vocal inflection and exaggerated arm-wave. His laid back, colloquial style adds a much-needed casual atmosphere to topics that could conceivably come off as dry. Two memorable quotes in particular: “I equate Persia with luxury. With rich tapestries, beautiful rugs and my mother’s fat, fuzzy Persian cat named Otis” and (this one’s long, but try reading it out loud) “Now, it’s one thing to invent a clutch, a fly-wheel, you got the donkey only going in one direction saving a lot of time, and then you got crane that moves stuff up high – but the more important question is: I’m standing on top of this dome – and how did Bruneleschi keep this sucker from cavin’ in!?’” Weller’s words are all wet with emotion – very enchanting.
The show seamlessly weaves Weller’s on-site pontifications, landscape sweeps, reenactments, and computer-generated diagrams together to form the very cohesive, flowing documentary. Though it’s not always about engineering. Sure, in any given episode there will be at least six significant feats discussed, but the general history surrounding the culture takes up a large amount of the hour. This is great for channel-surfing laymen, but if you’ve majored in history you might find the show a bit pandering. This four-DVD series could truly ramp-up high school level history learning.
Engineering an Empire, however, is not without its faults – the largest of which is the reenacting. Sadly, reenactments are the necessary evil of a visual history show. Almost every acted scene longer than a few seconds undermines the power and gravity of the unbelievable people and events and wonders being described. Representing the treacherous death of Hamilcar Barca with a clearly healthy hand bobbing in a river doesn’t add to the momentous narration. Luckily, other visuals cues are used often and effectively. CG, three-dimensional, mock-blueprints outline how different machines operate or different buildings were constructed; maps illustrate empire expansion and are many times creatively designed – the Aztec expansion, in particular, is denoted by what looks like blood soaking up the Aztec-controlled areas.
There’s also the issue of the grandiose narration. Everything in the show is the greatest, the largest, the most advanced bloopidty-blah ever. In the Great Britian episode, the voice-over emphatically presses, “[Big Ben:] The largest time piece the world has EVER seen!” Phrases like that one and “stands the test of time” are uttered at least twice an episode.
Overall, it seems this documentary’s only real fault lies inside the conventions of basic-cable television. After all, Engineering an Empire needs ratings just like everything else. So every tool possible to haul in the channel surfers are employed. Booming-voiced, aggrandizing narration? Check. Constantly shifting visuals? Check. Thirty-five second recap before and after each commercial break? Check and check.
This DVD series is loaded with 12 episodes (though sadly, not on Rome nor Egypt, as they are sold as their own specials) and a brief, but very good behind-the-scenes look at Weller’s ability to wax intellectually with the professors interviewed, this highlights just how excited he is to be traveling though every glorious ancient ruin. Indeed, Engineering an Empire is 12+ hours of spectacle.