Days That Shook the World: The Complete First Season

Popular history tends to fetishize specific dates and the events they denote at the expense of a larger historical context and its cultural significance.

Days That Shook the World

Distributor: BBC Warner
Length: 770
Subtitle: The Complete First Season
Network: BBC
UK Release Date: 2007-08-06
US Release Date: 2008-08-05

"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, 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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.