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Series / Connections

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The question is in what way are the triggers around us likely to operate to cause things to change — for better or worse. And, is there anything we can learn from the way that happened before, so we can teach ourselves to look for and recognize the signs of change? The trouble is, that's not easy when you have been taught as I was, for example, that things in the past happened in straight-forward lines.
- Episode 10 - Yesterday, Tomorrow and You

Well-regarded 1978 documentary series by British science and technology journalist and historian of science James Burke. Subtitled "An Alternative View of Change", Connections presented what would come to be known as the web theory of history, rejecting the straight-line notion of technological progress, instead presenting major aspects of the modern world as the end product of long strings of happy accidents where the historical context causes two otherwise unrelated tracks to run into each other (for example, he attributes rocketry in large part to the coincidence of a meat shortage in England with malaria in the Florida swamps). The series traced paths leading to radar, the atom bomb, the computer, television, plastic, the production line, and similar installments in the modern world.

Some element of the motivation behind Connections appears to be to point out the dangers of shutting down any particular line of scientific or technological progress as not worthwhile (a subject that would have hit close to home for Burke, as he was at the time best known in the UK for his coverage of the Apollo landings), since the ultimate benefits of any advance could be enormous and utterly unpredictable—almost all of his paths through the knowledge web involve several innovations which were at the time considered failures or worthless, and pretty much all of his paths involved the integration of several discoveries and inventions which were considered completely unrelated until somebody put them together to create something completely new and unexpected.

Though not strictly a sequel, the 1985 series The Day The Universe Changed, subtitled "A Personal View by James Burke",note  used the same style and techniques, this time tracing paths not to specific inventions, but to aspects of modern society in its philosophical aspects: modern medicine, credit, having a specific field of expertise rather than being a generic TV Genius, the notion of "progress" and the like.

In the 1990s, The Learning Channel produced two sequel series, Connections 2 and Connections 3. The sequels were paced much faster and did not go into the depth of the earlier offerings. The beginning of each episode was connected to the last, and the final episode of each series linked back to the first, forming a closed circle.

Another reason for the popularity of Burke's documentaries is that he is also a skilled showman with an excellent sense of humor, which enables his films to grant as much laughs as enlightenment. In other words, instead of his history of science documentaries being stuffy, they're fun!

Some of the ground covered in the earlier series would be covered by Burke again in the 1990 Maryland Public Television-produced After The Warming, a Mockumentary tracing the historical threads leading to global climate change and suggesting a path forward from the point of view of a 2050 society which has (just barely) gotten global warming under control.

Connections is also perhaps the only documentary series to have spawned a licensed tie-in video game. Connections: It's a Mind Game is a Myst-style Adventure Game based loosely on Connections 2.

This Work Contains Examples Of:

  • Alternate History: Several times during the two later series, Burke muses about how easily we could have not had, say, penicillin due to the unpredictable nature of historical connections.
  • And Man Grew Proud: Burke is fond of warning against this. The fact that most of his shows were made during the Cold War is a fairly obvious contributing factor.
  • Author Allusion: A subtle one in the opening of the ninth episode of the 1978 series ("Countdown"), in which Burke, standing by the launch tower at Complex 38 at Cape Canaveral, talks about how the sight of it "brings back—as fresh as if it were yesterday—one of the most profoundly moving events of our lives". He was of course talking about the launch of Apollo 11, for which he had been present as a correspondent for the BBC in 1969 (which is what his British audience nine years later would have known him best from).
  • Catchphrase: Burke has a few.
    • "Seriously dead": Anytime there was some kind of major danger under discussion.
    • "A mere bagatelle": More commonly used in The Day the Universe Changed, Burke used this phrase whenever new discoveries could be explained away by existing authorities with a bit of fiddling with the old theories—contrary to popular belief.
    • "All of that lovely money": Reminding us of the main reason anyone ever invented anything.
    • "Everybody but everybody": Had to have it, buy it, wear it, wanted it, etc., depending on whatever good(s) were driving development at that point in the story.
    • "All that good stuff": Said at the end of a list of things, usually of not-that-good stuff.
  • Deadpan Snarker: One of the major appeals of the series was Burke's style of delivery, with heavy doses of snark and dry British wit.
  • Doctor's Orders: The The Day the Universe Changed episode "Just What the Doctor Ordered" starts with an explanation of how this trope came to be.
  • Failed Future Forecast: Although the history is sound, Burke spends the last episode of the original series lamenting the future. He predicts that the rise of computers will concentrate power in the hands of the few companies rich enough to own them. The concept of ubiquitous personal computers or the internet were not widely considered at the time (for good reason: the IBM Personal Computernote  was still three years away, and even that still cost several months' good salary and had extremely limited capabilities, and the Internet itself was one of those "put two technologies—namely computing and telephony—together which nobody thought had anything to do with each other" brilliant moments—one that had arguably already happened when Burke made the series,note  but so recently and obscurely that nobody could have foreseen the consequences) and the central thesis of the episode seems quaint now. To his credit, Burke changed his tune very quickly, hinting at the modern Internet society in The Day the Universe Changed (in 1985, by which point personal computers were clearly a thing and TCP/IP had been written—and Burke was up enough on computers to put two and two together).
    • And on the gripping hand, the reason for his lament about the companies rich enough to own computers — that they would gain unprecedented power via the accumulation of data about people — actually has proven accurate in the form of Big Data (hello, Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal!), albeit in a way he didn't foresee (and probably couldn't have even in 1985)note .
  • For Want of a Nail: Pretty much the entire point of the series.
  • Foreshadowing: A blink-and-you'll-miss-it example: "Thunder in the Skies" in the 1978 series, which largely leads up to the invention of the automobile (followed by the aeroplane), begins with an aerial shot of Detroit and its then-new Renaissance Center (where Burke began the episode). Burke could have made his point about the importance of the modern society made possible by the production line and its reliance on limited energy supplies anywhere, but he chose Detroit—the Motor City.
  • Hollywood History: Not merely one of the greatest aversions of it ever made, but also (especially in the last episode of the first series) treats almost all history as Hollywood History, due to past research mistakes and liberties.
    • The original series can come off as a bit Eurocentric at times—but considering that it was made in 1978, it was actually unusually non-Eurocentric for the period.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Burke loves these.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Not from Burke himself but one of his subjects, going into how, at one point, despite a strong domestic grain growing industry, and the availability of dirt cheap grain and flour from America, the average German at the time couldn't get basic bread. note 
  • Oktoberfest: As a bit of a Running Gag, whenever the Germans come up in the original series or in The Day the Universe Changed, they will inevitably be singing, playing music of questionable quality, and usually drinking. The actual Oktoberfest is particularly prominent in "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry," in which the German and in particular Bavarian preference for lager over ale turns out to be extremely significant.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: There is liberal use of "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana in the original series, most noticeable during the last episode of the first season.
  • Shout-Out: The Day the Universe Changed is subtitled "A Personal View," as was Sir Kenneth Clark's series Civilisation, which set the form for these sort of multi-episode documentary miniseries. Later, Carl Sagan would tweak his Shout-Out just a bit with Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
  • The Simple Life is Simple: Defied; in the first episode, Burke makes a point of deconstructing the idea that fleeing the cities for the farms in the event of a civilization-ending catastrophe would be either easy or painless, pointing out that the same infrastructure that supports modern urban life has also transformed the way modern farming works, and that post-apocalyptic agriculture would be laborious, back-breaking work. He uses this as a jumping-off point to explore how the development of agriculture enabled the rise of civilization as we know it in the first place.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Spectactularly averted - Burke always manages to tie everything together at the end of each episode.
  • Wiki Walk: The structure of most episodes, albeit a little more linear.