Dateline Valley Forge

James Woods travels through time on the Discovery Channel.

Valley Forge, and you were there

Last March, James Woods was patched into news footage of New York’s crumbling twin towers for Rudy (USA), in which he starred as Rudolph Giuliani. Being an actual anachronism must have pleased Woods, since he is now allowing himself to be dropped, courtesy of digital video, into still earlier datelines: the Black Sea in 1347, Jamestown in 1607, Valley Forge in 1778. As plague victims wail or the Continental Army charges, Woods upstages them in casual clothes, punning about history and lightening the mood. This is Woods’ new weekly show on the Discovery Channel, Moments in Time (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET).

Some viewers may now be put in mind of a wonderful announcement from the early days of American infotainment: “All things are as they were then except for one thing: You Are There.” Come on, do your best early Cronkite impression. Moments in Time does indeed borrow its format—and its triumphalist tone—from You Are There, the 1950s TV program that evolved from a beloved radio show on which World War II correspondents, newly excited about on-the-scene broadcasting, could be heard interviewing the likes of Socrates, Paul Revere, and John Wilkes Booth—in the heat of the moment, of course.

On last week’s episode of Moments in Time, Woods’ hot moment was the Revolutionary War, during George Washington’s pre-Valley Forge losing streak. “For the leader of the army, it’s time for a grim reality check,” says Woods, introducing the modern jargon he deploys to make history swing, the way ‘70s schoolteachers used to (“Jesus was just a dude”). Shot in part in Vilnius, Lithuania—that land Washington fought so hard to defend our right to shoot video in—the scene is bluish-white; it’s January 1778 at Valley Forge, we’re told, and the Continental Army, suitably, looks frigid and bedraggled. Some of the actors here, including Dean Malissa, who plays Washington, come from the American Historical Theatre, a company that also supplies schools with Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, and Rosa Parks. Participation by men like Malissa, who can play an icon without realist interference, simplifies the narrative while heightening its plain facts. Geeky and satisfying attention is paid to the details of the British uniform, the blast patterns of cannon shots, and the musket’s deadly dum-dum bullet.

Woods intercedes a few times, once pausing Washington’s battle as if it were on TiVo and stepping into the frame. He insistently reminds viewers that the American Army didn’t have an easy time of it—that they were motley and untrained and likely to lose—but it’s difficult to create suspense about the outcome of the Revolutionary War. At the same time, Woods is a natural in this unusual role: His stoic loneliness on the sidelines of Moments in Time recalls Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone.

Tonight, Woods visits Jamestown, Va., America’s first English settlement. Many figures in multi-layered Renaissance neck ruffsappear in this episode, and the actors—historical theater types again, I suspect—appear to relish the roles of aristocracy abroad. Rapiers are drawn, stories about Pocahontas are debunked (she was “built like a piano mover,” one historian says, unkindly), and finally the settlement vanishes. But an archeologist named William Kelso also shows up in a present-day sequence to explain findings (including bones and artifacts) that illuminate lasting mysteries. Kelso contends, among other things, that many settlers married Native Americans at Jamestown and that Native Americans lived in the English fort. He also has disinterred a brass signet ring that links William Strachey—an English writer whose accounts of his travels are thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s Tempest—to Jamestown.

As on many cable history shows, archeologists, rather than historians, are the heroes on Moments in Time. Next Wednesday’s show (“Curse of the Rat”) visits the plague years. An archeologist is searching for traces of DNA in the teeth of buried skeletons; ideally, this will reveal when people first contracted the plague in England, as well as where and how they were buried. More scholarly than the other episodes, “Curse of the Rat” exploits all the advantages of Moments in Time, setting scenes all over the world and showcasing ghoulish tableaus by makeup artists who imaginatively render goiters and open sores. The show is also filled with evocative trivia: I hadn’t realized that space for the dead grew so scant that the pope consecrated the Rhone river as a burial ground.

I’m fond of documentary shows, like some on the History Channel, that risk tackiness—but hew to material accuracy—in order to dramatize danger and heroism. Digital video, new kinds of DNA analysis, and even tricky James Woodsought by all means to be used to make history vivid.

“In the afterglow of history,” Woods says at the end of the pilot (the writing is surprisingly spirited), “Valley Forge becomes a squeaky clean symbol of the American spirit. But for the men who went through the crucible, it was about grinding hardships, not glory.” Maybe. But no matter how many torn-up shoes and badly bandaged wounds appear on Moments in Time, the rise of the Continental Army at Valley Forge seems just how it seemed in high school—pretty glorious. And for one TV hour, We Are There.