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Created: December 24, 2004
Latest Update: December 24, 2004
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/24/arts/television/24mart.html. Original URL, consulted: December 24, 2004.December 24, 2004
TV REVIEW | 'COUNTDOWN TO ARMAGEDDON'
Doomsayers of All Stripes, Now Together in One Show
By NED MARTEL
Try to simplify the rift between religion and science, their competing visions of a punishing apocalypse and a natural cycle of destruction, and you will be one step ahead of the History Channel. The cable network has often coasted on repackaging World War II and Vietnam battles, but even that scale of warfare may now seem dwarfed by the apocalyptic fare in store for viewers of "Countdown to Armageddon" on Sunday. The show covers a vast expanse of time, charting cataclysms the Earth seems condemned to repeat and others we can scarcely imagine.
This sprawling two-hour overview of who proposes what about mankind's demise is not for the fainthearted. Some viewers may feel understandably daunted by the conflagration, whether it comes in the form of mere magma or springs from something divine.
The show marshals facts in service of two belief systems. The first purports to explain God's wrath in retributive terms: we will soon pay for our sins with our lives. The other forecasts just as much mayhem but fathoms its role within destructive patterns in nature, some of which man has worsened.
Of all faiths, Christianity is deemed the most pessimistic, fixated on texts that are excruciatingly vivid about God's supposed endgame. In the Book of Revelation, beasts invade the realm of powerless believers. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse trample and sicken and starve all mortals. And an array of seven angels empty bowls upon the globe. The numerals 666 appear on the wrist of those marked by the Antichrist. Some evangelical Christians believe that only after the Earth is cleansed of sin and sinners will their own redemption begin.
According to the show, Christianity, more than other faiths, demonstrates such "absorption" in imagining the world's end. One co-author of the best-selling "Left Behind" series, the Rev. Tim LaHaye, explains his cause for alarm: "Our generation has more reason to believe that the Christ could come in our lifetime than any other generation before us. We have all the signs that are necessary to be fulfilled." The 12 "Left Behind" books, addressing Last Judgment themes, have sold about 60 million copies, which is one measure of the popular strength of that conviction.
The program casts most of the doomsayers in an emotionally charged light. Some are described as "televangelists," with all the dubious connotations the term signifies. They speak with a fervor that inspires their mega-church flocks to wave hands and mutter affirmations. And in one telling scene-closer, a swaying, racially diverse choir exclaims, "I'm excited!"
In interviews, scientists and scholars are insistent but solemn. Many have written tomes on religious history and some wear Roman collars to signal their studious spiritual lives. Like an ascetic monk, one theologian uses a Goth candelabrum to illuminate his dark chamber. The show allows such reflective scholars to cast evangelical preachers as wild-eyed demagogues who "pick and choose" facts to fit their visions of redemption.
For the data-based view of an ominous future, scientific experts note that the tundra in Greenland is turning green, and Mount Kilimanjaro is losing its frosty lid, portending significant climate change. And then we are told that lethal microbes may soon flourish, as epidemiologists report that smallpox is the only truly eradicated pestilence. Old diseases like cholera, tuberculosis and polio may return in newly virulent strains, not to mention the anthrax-as-a-weapon threat.
Oh, and don't forget the incoming asteroids.
Actually, this is the encouraging half of the show's findings. At least in the scientific presentation, there's a sense that what environmentalists like to call planet managers could come together with ingenuity (and enormous resources) to save the Earth. The more apocalyptic preachers don't allow such leeway: humans made this mess and they will pay the ultimate price.
There's a temptation to think of red staters preparing for the big comeuppance, while blue staters roll their eyes at any prophecy that is not peer-reviewed. One scientist notes some potential bad news for both demographic groups. A mega-volcano could soon burble from beneath the geysers at Yellowstone, spouting soot that could coat and choke the heartland. For the coast dwellers, there's the seismic threat that may cleave California in two, while the Eastern Seaboard may become awash in the annihilating force of a 15-minute tsunami wave. Its source: another potential mega-volcano under the Canary Islands.
The program works best when upholding its basic History Channel mission of laying out what came before, especially during an account of religious prognosticators whose warnings never came true. At the close of the 17th century, Cotton Mather picked many final points in the calendar, but the Earth kept outlasting these expiration dates. In the mid-19th century, William Miller led his congregation in upstate New York to feel similarly stood up by the Grim Reaper. Don't get too comfortable, though: the Mayans predicted Dec. 21, 2012 as their chosen doomsday.
Over all, the science interviews seem more low-tech and staged than those on "Nova," and the history anecdotes have a different feel than any presented on the American Experience series on PBS. There, string quartets and David McCullough's measured Yalie monotone add to the earnestness, the detachment and, thus, the credibility. "Countdown to Armageddon," however, mixes symphonies and synth-pop. Even though the narrator, Edward Herrmann, has often played even-tempered patricians (the winking FDR in "Eleanor and Franklin" and "Annie," or the Whiffenpoofy Richard in "The Gilmore Girls"), his actorly gifts sometimes get the best of him. On occasion, he turns whispery when quoting prophets, and arch when citing skeptics.
Uneven tones are the main problem with "Countdown to Armageddon," a show that stirs up more storms than it knows how to navigate. It leaves a viewer feeling buffeted, overwhelmed, queasy. The religious believers are made to seem self-important and credulous, eager for a retributive confirmation of their saved-versus-damned worldview.
The scientific believers appear to be impatient and quibbling, frustrated that their data does not convince everyone of man's insignificance in the great scheme of things. "Countdown to Armageddon" gives a soapbox to both types of Cassandra, hyping their inclement forecasts for maximum audience vulnerability.
'Countdown to Armageddon'
History Channel, Sunday night at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.
Directed by David de Vries; a Greystone Communications production.
WITH: Edward Herrmann, narrator; Gershom Gorenberg, Dr. Paul Halpern, the Rev. Tim LaHaye and Barbara Rossing.