After the Beeb gave birth to computer generated dinosaurs, it was only a matter of time before every single historical documentary would start using CGI. We've seen virtual battle re-enactments, the Hoover dam, first century Jerusalem and Lo! silicon even recreated Jesus' face - well probably not, but millions tuned in to discover the alleged face of the Son of God.
Ancient Egyptians however attempts to recreate Egypt within a narrative context - each episode is a self-contained historical tale which is meticulously re-enacted with the cast speaking ancient Egyptian. Since the characters are the main focus, the CGI is given only a supporting role in recreating historical decors that are now lost. They elected to only subtitle the dialogue that is historically accurate while the rest of the plot or historical context is explained by the narrator, Bernard Hill. This gives the production team the difficult task of balancing out didacticism against the narrative - the result is generally good: only Murder in the Temple reveals to be lacking due to excessive focus on the narrative but little historical explanation. A certain heavy handedness is evident in the presentation - they insist excessively on the authenticity of each story and make a snake/scorpion/bug crawl across every papyrus they come across just in case the viewer has already forgotten the location of the series!
Despite its numerous flaws, the series is quite an entertaining and innovative approach to making historical documentaries with a attention to detail and a certain amount of storytelling. The main question is whether Ancient Egyptians is a historical documentary or a Gladiator-like series - but that's up to the viewers to decide.
The included episodes are as follow:
The Battle of Megiddo: A young and inexperienced Pharaoh faces a Syrian rebellion that threatens to end his reign. Despite being outnumbered, he sets out to nip the rebellion in its bud.
Tomb Raiders: Corrupt pyramid workers are on the take, robbing the very people who employed them. Will the Nubian police force be able to capture the gang when even their own boss seems to be on their bankroll?
Murder in the Temple: With Egyptian power on the wane, the priests of Amun seek to form a political marriage with the Pharaoh regardless of the consequences.
The Twins: In Memphis, two twin girls are left destitute by their mother who has taken their share of the inheritance - with nowhere left to go, they seek refuge in the Serapeum temple.
Split over 2 DVDs, the four episodes from the series are included here. The image is given an anamorphic transfer and generally looks very good. Some fine grain is visible upon inspection though that may have been added to give that cinematic look to the digital video.
Despite only getting a 2.0 mix, the soundtrack uses stereo effects quite extensively especially with the music. The overall mix is very good and exhibits no noticeable flaws.
The subtitles for some of the ancient Egyptian dialogue is burnt-in to the image but the DVD also provides standard English subtitles as well as subtitles for the hard of hearing. As the production made a conscious choice to not subtitle the majority of the dialogue, the HOH subs just express the tone of voice of each character (like "speaks ancient Egyptian urgently") and make it clear when the narrator is speaking. The extras were also subtitled which is a good touch.
The special features are limited to six mini-documentaries, each lasting around 6 minutes and two sets of production stills. The production stills are interesting but of limited repeat value but on the other hand the mini-documentaries are very good. Priests and Dreamers and Warrior and Thieves give a greater historical context to the four stories and for the only time in the series you hear the voices of various historical consultants as well as the director and producer of the series. Digital Egypt and Recreating Ancient Egypt look at the complex task of the computer graphics as well as the set design. Finally, Speaking in hieroglyphs explains how they managed to recreate the ancient Egyptian language and Pharaonic Fashions shows how they designed the various costumes.
All-in-all an entertaining enough series which can never be accused of making history boring. The DVD extras are pretty good and offer some more information on the series making the DVD a worthwhile purchase if you missed the TV run or want to watch it again.