Is PBS still PC? Or is it politically incorrect even to attempt to be fair to a white European male accused of abetting rape, pillage, enslavement, mass murder and environmental devastation? Not to mention swiping the glory from America's true discoverer, who, of course, was the fifth-century Chinese sailor Hui-Shen. But enough, for the moment, of revisionist tempests. PBS's seven-hour "Columbus and the Age of Discovery," which runs for four straight nights beginning next Sunday, is definitely MV (Must Viewing). Hoping to repeat the ratings of last year's "The Civil War," as well as steal a jump on the Columbus quincentenary hoopla, public TV has produced the kind of epic documentary the networks long ago abandoned. It's got mammoth sweep, probing intelligence and, wonder of video wonders, supreme irony. Try to name another prime-time drama whose protagonist ends up glorified and vilified for a deed he neither intended nor comprehended.
Like the mariner himself, this documentary gets around. Its opening episode takes us to Venice, Genoa, Cairo, Beijing, Kyoto, Istanbul and the Moluccas; by the finale, it will have dropped by 27 countries. There's a point to all that globe-hopping--to explain the man by explaining his times. Besides visiting the ports and courts in which Columbus hatched his career moves, the series pokes into the remotest crevices of 15th-century existence. Get ready for minicourses in the spice and slave trades, oceanic wind patterns, the construction of caravels, Italian city-states, Arab map-making and African gold mining, along with the fall of Constantinople. It seems, at first, as if we need a course correction. Yet even the tiniest factoid helps fill in the puzzle. This is, after all, a study of history's most consequential accident. No wonder it wants to tell us everything.
Once Columbus launches his epochal voyage, the series transforms itself into a scientific adventure saga, a sort of "Jacques Cousteau Sails the Spanish Main." Full-size replicas of the and Santa Maria, built by the Spanish Navy, retrace the explorer's route. Observing the frailty of those tiny caravels, watching the trade winds carry them deeper into that uncharted vastness, one begins to comprehend the magnificent audacity of Columbus's obsession. As the modern fleet's crew chant the supplicatory hymns of the original voyagers, excerpts from the admiral's journal suggest their mood swings. A stormy day: "Many sighed and wept." A perfect day: "Nothing was lacking except to hear nightingales."
With landfall came controversy, as will no doubt come to PBS. Though the current wave of Columbus-bashing arose after shooting had finished on the documentary, executive producer Zvi Dor-Ner believes--correctly--that it reflects all political sides. The explorer's salutary impact on the New World gets its due. We see how such Spanish imports as the horse transformed the lives of Native Americans, even as the potato that thrived in the Andes fueled a boom in Europe's population. Of course, the "Columbian Exchange" also worked horrific harm. As the series painstakingly shows, the Europeans brought slavery, oppression and decimating diseases. And when it tells rather than shows, the statistics are stunning. In the quarter century after Columbus colonized Hispaniola, the island's Indian population plummeted from 500,000 to 500. The documentary also pauses to listen, and not merely to the obligatory scholars. "The flower of our life was dried out," mourns a contemporary Native American. Cut to the boosterish mayor of Columbus, Ohio, who proposes that the explorer "reflects all the things that are good and right and decent and honorable about our country."
According to producer Dor-Ner, who's worked on the series for 10 years, "the controversy has always been at the root of our story. We did not need to suddenly change direction." PBS officials, he reports, were "plenty nervous" at the project's outset, and both anti-and pro-Columbus factions are already knocking this TV treatment, sight unseen. "Some tell me I'm not depicting the true horror of the Spanish occupation," says Dor-Ner. "At the other extreme, others say I should show how millions of Latin American Indians are wearing suits and operating computers today because of the Spanish influence."
Actually, the documentary registers best (and its subject worst) as a character study. Here is Christopher the Devious, playing on Queen Isabella's piety and romanticism, then later lying to her about the wealth of the islands he's stumbled on; Christopher the Greedy, shocking his royal patrons by demanding unprecedented titles and privileges, and Christopher the Self-Pitying, writing home during his disastrous fourth voyage: "Weep for me, Spanish. Weep for me who has charity, truth and justice,"
For all its excellence, "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" seems unlikely to match the impact of "The Civil War." Not only does TV history rarely repeat itself, but this history lesson tends to keep us at arm's length emotionally. It could be argued that it lacks the genius of a Ken Burns; more likely, it needs the photos of a Mathew Brady. Still, it's certain to become the definitive Columbus screen treament, especially in light of the hagiographies to come. Hollywood is gearing up a Columbus film produced by the producer of "Superman" and directed by the director of "Rambo II." Speaking of credits, Zvi Dor-Ner once produced another seven-part documentary about a highly polarized subject--drawing critical raves for his evenhandedness. Its title: "Arabs and Israelis." There are navigators, and there are Navigators.