Connections: Season 1, Episode 5

The Wheel of Fortune (14 Nov. 1978)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
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Title: The Wheel of Fortune (14 Nov 1978)

The Wheel of Fortune (14 Nov 1978) on IMDb 8.7/10

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Episode cast overview:
James Burke ...
Himself - Presenter


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Release Date:

14 November 1978 (UK)  »

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Nowhere Near Burke's Best
9 August 2013 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

I love the original "Connections" and watch the better episodes repeatedly. As a student of history I know James Burke occasionally plays sleight of hand to make his connections fit, but at his best Burke is a lot of fun and I like his freewheeling approach of skimming across history, looking for (and sometimes stretching) arcane connections.

Unfortunately, Burke is not at his best here. He shows no grasp of actual medieval cosmology and entirely misunderstands the point of the Copernican revolution(both here and in his later "The Day the Universe Changed"). He has a bugaboo about religion, but that is usually easy to shrug off. Unfortunately, he leaves the erroneous impression that all ancient learning would have been lost to the west without the Arabs.

Not only does he not comprehend medieval cosmology, he apparently never heard of the Scriptoria of monasteries where learning of all types was kept alive by constant copying. Sure, it had a religious purpose -- some monks thought all knowledge led to greater knowledge of God and so had to be preserved, while others thought only some knowledge led to a greater understanding of God, but since we didn't know which knowledge that was all had to be preserved, especially with marauding pagan bands like Vikings, destroying everything that didn't glitter -- but so what? Burke often reminds me of the line in THE MIKADO of "the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own." Burke does have respect for certain persons of other centuries, or he could not present these wonderful shows. But he seems to have the typical (even stereotypical) bias of the modern western intelligentsia that they are either ignorant of the achievements of their own culture or are determined not to give credit where it's due.

I don't know which side Burke is on, but his prejudices are a little too much on display in this episode. Though he won't mention, or doesn't know, the truth of the Copernican revolution, or the survival of nearly all ancient learning via the monasteries (though they somehow missed Aristotle . . .) he is quick to give apply some credit, as when he rightfully gives medieval monks the dubious honor of inventing the alarm clock (that everyone hates).

While Burke often provides enjoyable visuals and lots of humor to make history/science/whatever more palatable to the people who derive their knowledge from television, here he's basically rooted to his spot and comes off as a rather prissy lecturer; and only toward the end, when the various strands of the story come together, does the show begin to really be intriguing.

Don't get me wrong, the episode is watchable, especially for the neat sting in the tail, which I won't give away; and it's more informative, in its own way, than more so-called information shows. But don't let Burke be your lone guru. If you are interested in this show as a way to kill fifty minutes with a little learning thrown in, fine. Just remember Pope's line that a little learning is a dangerous thing.

Oh, he uses classical music to excellent effect in this episode. Sometimes it's too loud or inappropriate, but here the pieces are well chosen.

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