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History Channel: Where the Past Comes Scripted

Tuesday 13th March 2012 by Molly Mahan

Remember the good old days of the History Channel, when the only programming they had consisted of scholars and scientists explaining why the Nazis should have won World War II, but didn’t? Despite superior weaponry, planning, and their spectacular taste in clothing. Hey, say what you like, but those evil bastards sure knew how to dress.

Once they started a serial called “Ancient Aliens”, I knew serious scholarship and credibility were slowly skipping out the door. But at least it was scholarship, even if the academics are clearly out of the minds (but aren’t all academics?). They researched, they came up with crazy ideas about fifth dimensional beings and even inspired Spielberg and Ford to bore everyone out of their minds for a good two hours a couple years ago with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Good for them. I honestly thought that was the worst place a channel dedicated to historical study could go.

But now, the History Channel has truly jumped the shark and given up on their roots by ordering their first scripted series, called Vikings from the creative minds of Michael Hirst and Morgan O’Sullivan–the ones behind The Tudors and Camelot. While it may start off historical enough, like the little scenes they play out with silent actors while historians give their theories or a voice over reads an original document, etc. There is only so far it can go before it turns into pure historical fiction. And while I thoroughly enjoy historical fiction–and The Tudors is one of my favorite shows–and think the show sounds great, I am more than a little disappointed that the History Channel is where this show is going to be played. It’s not the place for it. 

How to Train Your Dragon: an actual How To from the Medieval Marvels crew.

Now, creating special programming because of events in pop culture–like when they reran their ancient Greek specials when 300 came out, or their plethora of “What did the Bible really say” specials that come on around Christmas–is one thing. Those are topics people are interested in, and there are actual sources and things from which scholars can draw upon to make conclusions. But to take a person from history–Ragnar Lothbok, in this instance–and sensationalize him and his conquests shouldn’t be the job of the History Channel. At least they chose an already sensationalized character, as he’s essentially the Norse equivalent of Robin Hood or Arthur. Historical, but mostly legendary.

Their own words show how far they have departed from the origins: Vikings “will boast a polished, stylized look that pushes the boundaries of television drama” and “will feature imaginatively choreographed battles that emphasize individual points of view, strategies and ruses rather than mindless, graphic slaughter.”

Great for ratings, not that I am against ratings, but not exactly good for one’s education. And yes, I do think a station called “History” should be educational. (I have enough trouble dealing with people trying to be classicists after watching Gladiator, what will it be like when people can note the History Channel as a sign of ethos?) If they want to create a sister channel named “Historical Fiction” or “HiFi” (which would later be changed to “HyFy”), I’d jump faster and farther than John Carter to be there.

Nevertheless, I guess they win. We all know I’ll be catching the first episode.