I'm still not entirely sure what went wrong with Andrew Marr's History of the World but they must have been travelling at a hell of a speed when they lost control. On the evidence of the first episode, it's one of those series that demands a forensic investigation rather than a review.
How did one of the Corporation's most valued broadcasting assets end up trapped in this mangled wreck? Was there a struggle for the steering wheel just as they approached a critical bend? Or – and it's an uncomfortable thought this – was there no loss of control at all? Was this what they intended all along? With one wheel still revolving slowly and hot metal ticking in the silence, we can't yet answer those questions, but I'm guessing that unsettling word "co-production" might be a clue. "Produced in association with the Department of Trade and Industry South Africa which does not accept any liability for the content and does not necessarily support such content," read a closing credit. Boilerplate legalese, I assume, but after the programme that preceded it, it was hard not to read genuine dismay into those words.
It began, like so many landmark series these days, with three minutes of bombastic self-promotion. "There will be challenges, triumphs and surprises...all the essentials of the story," Marr promised as the soundtrack fanfared behind him, reassuring us that the compression of 70,000 years of human history into just eight programmes needn't invalidate the exercise. "It does help to have the big picture," he said. But almost immediately, it dawned that B-movie would be a more accurate description than big picture. As a group of early hominids shuffled across the African savannah, you realized – with a sinking feeling – that re-enactment was going to trump scholarly expertise when it came to illustration. Worse than that, the re-enactments appear to be based on Hollywood schlock, rather than archeological evidence. In one baffling sequence, our earliest ancestors edge across a Lord of the Rings-style rock bridge (geology and performances both carved from pure polystyrene). In another, a group of Homo sapiens chased a terrified neanderthal through the woods to end with a literal cliff-hanger. And in the most embarrassing of all, we appeared to be offered dramatic highlights from "Confessions of an Egyptian Stonemason".
What's really disappointing is that Marr's virtues as a broadcaster have been converted into a liability by the modesty of the intellectual ambition. That wry, jocular style – so effective when deployed against the solemn self-importance of Westminster politics – sat uneasily here alongside children's encyclopedia simplifications. And his genuine ability to turn a phrase that can arrest your attention was constantly undermined by exposition that assumed that there's no understanding to back our attention up. "Laziness turns out to be an underestimated force in human history," Marr said, keying up the development of agriculture. This was a counterintuitive moment, he reminded us: you hold back some of your hard-won food and bury it in the ground, "and then you wait". Just in case some viewers were struggling with this tricky concept, we then got a 40-second montage of an ur-agriculturalist doggedly returning to a blank patch of soil as the seasons turned.
Seemingly indifferent to the distinctions between legend and history and capitulating far too often to the gimcrack thrills of CGI and dramatisation, it looks ominously as if it will be a landmark the BBC will want to forget. Perhaps the most telling moment of all came at the end, when Marr signed off: "If you'd like to know a little bit more about how the past is revealed," he said, "you can order a free booklet called 'How Do They Know That'." There was a time when How They Knew That would have been at the heart of such a series, not an afterthought available by post.