For an altogether different Millennium, we are invited by Ted Turner to spend the next two months looking back at Millennium: Thousand Years of History (Sundays, October 10 through December 12; 10 to 11 p.m.; CNN). This richly absorbing series, from executive producers Pat Mitchell (A Century of Women) and Sir Jeremy Isaacs (Cold War), narrated by Ben Kingsley and based on an idiosyncratic text by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, devotes an hour each to the past ten centuries, with a refreshingly multicultural point of view and handy tags to help us keep our place in the rinse cycle of bygone civilizations. Thus, a century of the sword is followed by centuries of the axe, the stirrup, the scythe, the sail, and so on.
With quotations of pertinent texts from the times, motion-picture footage of present-day locales, re-creations in period costume of the most flamboyant action, and a lavish laying-on of ancient maps, lurid art, haughty sculpture, haunted ruins, and computer animation, Millennium acquaints us, at least for the first four hours, as much with Africa and the Far and Middle Easts as it does with Europe. In the eleventh century, for instance, we visit China for printing, paper money, gunpowder, the compass, and the water-driven clock, not to mention terrific kites. And North Africa for expansive Islam, as well as the libraries and the reflecting pools of Cordoba in Moorish Spain. And India for Hinduism, especially the erotic art. And Japan for the first novels, with lots of Sei Shonagon talking to her prurient pillow. And this is before we even get a glimpse of Europe in its Dark Ages, with its werewolves and its tree gods, before the first cathedrals.
On, then, to a twelfth century of North American pueblos; French Gothic spires; Ethiopian rock churches; Italian city-states; and the walkabout in Dreamtime of Australian aborigines who had no need of any other architecture than the landscape whose magic they sang into being, whose symbols they painted on sand. Followed by Genghis Khan on horseback and his grandson Kublai in the stately pleasure dome of Xanadu, Marco Polo and Roger Bacon, the eastward passage of spices and ideas, the Mamelukes of Egypt, the merchants of Venice, Frederick II of Sicily, and Saint Francis of Assisi. Finished off, so much of it, by the Black Death, as the plague rolled into Cairo, Timur rode out of Samarkand, and the peasants in England revolted.
There’s a nice stereoscopic sense of simultaneous exploration and originality, excess and exhaustion, beauty and death. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Millennium is profound, but it is at least inclusive, and not at all patronizing, and seems in its very waywardness to dream along song lines like the nomads of Australia.