The Pillars of The Earth (Sony) – Ken Follett’s fame rests primarily in a very successful series of World War II thrillers and military adventures but by far his most popular book is a labor love historical drama, an epic portrait of the building of a (fictional) cathedral in 12th century Britain. The story is fiction but the backdrop of civil war over the succession to the throne was real and this made-for-cable miniseries uses the fiction to explore the texture of life for the common folk, the peasants and farmers and tradesman simply trying to survive while the royals and aristocrats and church officials engage in political gamesmanship to build their power out of the battle for succession to the throne. Too big for a single film, the novel gets the mini-series treatment—eight one-hour episodes—from the pay cable network Starz.
At the center of the character story is stonemason Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), a father and an artist who dares to propose an impossible dream, and Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen), a priest in a rural parish who dares dream along with the mason when his church burns to the ground. “It may have been the work of the devil but it was God that sent you a master builder,” proclaims Tom to Philip and together they defy the schemes and sabotage of the ruthlessly vengeful and greedily ambitious Bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane, all dark villainy and smarmy hypocrisy as he prays to God as a co-conspirator in “our plan”). Aliena (Hayley Atwell), a dispossessed noblewoman turned business mogul, and Jack (Eddie Redmayne), an orphan with a gift for sculpture who vows to finish his adoptive father’s architectural wonder, continue to keep the dream alive. The political tale, meanwhile, spins a fictional conspiracy around the succession to the throne and a mystery finally revealed in the final chapter of the eight-part mini-series.
There’s plenty of melodrama (both emotional and political) and tyranny as well as prophecies, curses, nightmares, dreams and visions (this was a superstitious time after all and we have one healer figure who fills the stereotype of witch with a vengeance), and this being a Starz pay cable show a little nudity and a little more violence, though nothing approaching the unrated exhibitionism of the Starz sex-and-circuses Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan is more focused on the dense story and the complicated political web and narrative tangle of characters, and there are plenty of major characters sacrificed to their causes along the way. But the show is most memorable for its evocation of the lives of the peasants, the masons and the dispossessed, all of them at mercy of an aristocracy and church ready to sacrifice its subjects for its own power. In a lot ways he follows Follet’s lead in compressing social anthropology, architectural history and the tyranny of life under medieval monarch and aristocracy. And the production does it with great scope and sweep, with its medieval towns and castles and the gorgeous central Cathedral, a fictional creation standing in for the architectural evolution of the new millennium. It really is quite compelling and quite handsomely executed, an international co-production combining American storytelling, British history and European filmcraft to create the kind of dramatic longform production the networks abandoned long ago.
Eight episodes on three discs, plus the half-hour documentary “The Making of The Pillars of the Earth” (a better-than-average promotional piece with plenty of production detail) and brief featurettes on the visual effects and the animated title sequence.
The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection (Time-Life Exclusive) – “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.” According to TVShowsonDVD.com, The Six Million Dollar Man is the 4th most requested unreleased show on DVD. Make that “was.” All five seasons of the hit seventies show turned cult TV item debut in this complete Time-Life web exclusive set, along with the three original pilot films, the three reunion TV movies and The Bionic Woman crossovers. The show seems more dated than ever, with the cheesy slo-mo and the “cha-ka-cha-ka-cha-ka” sound effects to mark every feat of superhuman strength, the exposition-loaded dialogue and Lee Majors’ minimalist performance (thank goodness for Richard Anderson along for the ride). Each season is packaged up in a separate volume, with double-size cases and hinged trays collecting between six and nine discs per season, plus a bonus volume with more supplements. It adds up to 100 episodes on 40 discs, with six commentary tracks, 17 featurettes, lots of interviews and more, but here’s what really matters: it has all five Bigfoot episodes (played by Andre the Giant and Ted Cassidy, respectively) and Lee Majors’ fourth-season mustache. The opening credits narration plays every time you open the lenticular lid to the box: Better, stronger, faster. Buy it on the web here.
Luther (BBC) – British actor Idris Elba rose to prominence playing Stringer Bell on the HBO drama The Wire. He doesn’t have to hide his native accents in this dark BBC crime show where he plays the intensely driven and unforgiving DCI John Luther, a London detective with a penchant for dispensing his own justice. In the opening minutes of the first episode, he watches a suspect lose his grip from a catwalk railing in a cavernous factory and fall to his ostensible death… except that he lives. Which will have repercussions on Luther’s career, even as his commanding officer (Saskia Reeves) goes to bat for him. Sure he’s angry and unconventional and hot-tempered, and yes, he’s not handling his divorce well, but he is a brilliant investigator and a tireless cop who has made the job his life. Which probably had something to do with said divorce.
So yeah, he’s something of a liability as far as the department is concerned but a challenge for Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), the chief suspect in the first case and an emotionally crippled genius who sees a kinship in him. Alice at first appears to be his Moriarty, matching wits as some kind of competitive sport for the first few episodes, but as the show progresses she becomes more of a wild-card ally, using her cold-blooded cunning to “help” him by getting rid of enemies and obstacles to his progress. It makes for a dark series (Luther isn’t the only unstable factor on this squad) and Elba is suitably intense and unpredictable in the title role. Originally made for the BBC, it showed in the U.S. on BBC America. Six episodes on three discs, plus the featurette “Luther: The World of a True Maverick.”
Trek Stars Go West (VSC) – You gotta love the concept: this two-disc set features episodes of TV westerns featuring pre-Trek guest appearances by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelly and James (aka “Jim”) Doohan. The highlight is a feature-length 1961 two-parter from the obscure Outlaws (making its DVD debut) starring Shatner as a gang leader in a cast featuring Jack Warden, Cloris Leachman. Edgar Buchanan and David White (aka Larry Tate from Bewitched) as a particularly nasty businessman out for revenge on the outlaws given amnesty, though I like Nimoy as a scheming card sharp in an episode of Bonanza. The video quality is pretty rough, however, as these are taken from 16mm collector prints and home video recordings, not studio masters. There is wow and flutter on the flat soundtracks and in the case of Bonanza the theme song has been replaced with a generic piece of music.
Johnny Legend “presents” this six-hour collection of TV shows (plus the movie White Comanche) in PD-quality prints, as well as the single-disc collections “Betty White In Black And White,” featuring samples of short-lived shows she hosted and headlined in the early sixties, and “Dennis Hopper: The Early Works,” with early TV appearances on Medic, Public Defender and The Loretta Young Show and a 1964 turn as a beatnik on Petticoat Junction, plus the 1961 indie Night Tide, again from collector prints.
Also new on DVD: 7th Heaven: The Final Season (Paramount) brings the family drama to an end after eleven seasons, Lennon Naked (BBC) with Christopher Eccleston as John Lennon, the 1983 BBC film The Hound of the Baskervilles (BFS) with Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes and Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Paramount).