'Big History' Takes a New Look at the Past and How It Shapes the Future

Michael Ward

Big History the show, and big history, the discipline, may be just what we need to help solve the many problems facing us today.

Big History

Airtime: Saturdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Bryan Cranston (narrator)
Network: H2
Director: Sam Dolan
Air date: 2013-11-2

Did you take particular note of recent studies linking leaded gasoline with violent crime? Have you ever seen an accidental footpath worn in the grass to cut a corner and pondered the human obsession with finding the shortest route between two points? Was Guns, Germs, and Steel one of your favorite books (or TV shows)? Then Big History might be the show for you.

An ambitious (and likely to be controversial) ten-hour documentary series premiering 2 November, Big History takes as its driving principle the idea that sweeping historical events and trends can have humble, hidden causes. Hence a big historian sees the industrial juggernaut of Manhattan as the byproduct not of some ill-defined American can-do spirit, but of a simple effort to move salt from the Great Lakes region onto the world market. The European conquest of the New World, according to big history, came about not because of manifest destiny, but simply because the European conquerors had horses, and the Native Americans did not.

I say Big History is likely to be controversial because its founding principle -- and that of the big history movement of which the show is an adjunct -- leaves very little room for coddling myths like national identity and meritocracy. Jared Diamond treads the same dangerous territory as well, in Guns, Germs, and Steel and its ominous follow-up, Collapse.

Successful societies enjoy their plenitude due less to superior character than to the happy accident of temperate climate; unsuccessful ones fall not due to the weight of freeloaders and sodomites in their midst, but because some essential resource, previously abundant, is suddenly in short supply. Big history -- the peculiarly named discipline, not the show -- is a heartening attempt to revise the practice of traditional historical study to winnow out the ideological agendas and shortcomings inherent in its practice.

For example, historians are regularly human-centric, whereas big history tries to see humans in relation to earth and their environment. Historians usually concentrate on the relatively recent (consider the odd term “prehistoric”, which insinuates that there’s only so far into the past the study of the past itself can be bothered to go). A big historian, on the other hand, might theoretically touch on the universal singularity in a discussion of the advent of running shoes.

Traditional history likes conventional wisdom and single causes, like the nuclear bombing of Japan ended World War II, Vietnam was fought to stem the spread of communism. Big history, by contrast, is (at least ideally) interdisciplinary, unafraid to challenge assumptions, comfortable with metaphor and speculation, and indifferent to sacred cows.

“Salt”, the first episode in Big History, describes the mineral's roles in modern civilization, in meat preservation and mummification, in the way salt’s taxation contributed to such social upheavals as the French Revolution. (Though here one suspects the claim that a salt tax was the primary reason for revolt glosses over more complex, overdetermined causes.)

“Horse” does something similar for our four-legged equestrian fellows, and looks nicer doing it, as it turns out that elegant mammals make for better visuals than crumbly white powders. Future episodes look likely to be eclectic, as narrator Bryan Cranston promises forthcoming half-hour examinations of the vital roles of “Megastructures”, “Caffeine”, and “Ice” in shaping life as we know it.

Big History the show, and big history, the discipline, would seem to be just what we need right now, at a time when traditional assumptions -- about economics, morality, the nature of progress -- are proving less and less useful in solving the many stubborn and worsening problems afflicting the human species. Big history might be a genuine evolution in human thought. Hostile to dogma and organized religion, aligned with rationality at the expense of comforting but illogical narratives, it's also not at all sanguine about humanity’s prospect for survival should we fail to get our act together, and soon.

All of which leads me to my only complaint about Big History, the show, which is that it feels less weighty than the discipline it chronicles. This is partly due to its half-hour format, barely time enough to summarize its chosen subjects. Also incongruous are its ADD editing style, bombastic music, and wall-to-wall special effects. These make the series seem more like a documentary about the world’s biggest battleships than a cerebral exploration of innovative ideas.

I found myself yearning for a more BBC 4-like frame, with classical music, long periods of ponderous silence, an onscreen Cranston in crisp shirt and tie, hands folded thoughtfully as he pontificates in front of a backdrop timeline laying out the entire 13-billion-year history of the universe. Instead, we get cheesy reenactments, bad CGI dinosaurs, spastic, sweeping camera movements, blaring trumpet music straight out of Die Hard. In a documentary about salt!

The show’s garish style could be seen as a strategy just as easily as a shortcoming, though. Consider an alternative miniseries sandwiched on PBS between MacNeil/Lehrer and Charlie Rose, and similar in temperament to both. Such a show, while maybe more pleasing in the sound-echoes-sense department, would surely preach to the secular-humanist choir. It’s probably more useful to have the show bear a closer resemblance to Ice Truckers or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It means it will reach the eyeballs it needs to, the minds to whom its insights will come as a revelation.


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Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

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(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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