Leave it to the fine folks at National Geographic Television to scoff at mankind's feeble attempts to pour significance into marking of a thousand-year milestone in time-keeping. Just when we were all starting to feel pretty darn smug about being alive to witness the dawn of a new millennium and nipping that Y2K thing in the bud, this ambitious two-hour examination of origins and evolution arrives to clarify just how inconsequential humans are in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Leave it to the fine folks at National Geographic Television to scoff at mankind’s feeble attempts to pour significance into marking of a thousand-year milestone in time-keeping. Just when we were all starting to feel pretty darn smug about being alive to witness the dawn of a new millennium and nipping that Y2K thing in the bud, this ambitious two-hour examination of origins and evolution arrives to clarify just how inconsequential humans are in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Computer bug? As the special points out, it’s a mite hard to work up a sweat over a couple of unrecognized zeroes when you compare it to the Big Bang (a mere 13 billion years ago), or to that five-mile-long asteroid that possibly struck Earth 540 million years ago and may or may not have wiped out the dinosaurs.

In the estimated 4-1/2 billion-year life cycle of our planet, modern man has been around the equivalent of 3 seconds if we compress the planet’s entire history into a 24-hour day.

Heck, these last 2,000 years denote scarcely a millisecond on the great time clock of existence, as the National Geographic go to lengths to tell us. And we of the superior intellect can’t even get our years synchronized. It may be the year 2000 for us, but for Muslims it’s only 1420 — and Jews insist it’s 5760.

Yet the exquisitely filmed, exhaustively researched “Adventures in Time: The National Geographic Millennium Special” comes across as far more than a mere humble-pie bake-off. With relative seamless ease, it transports viewers from the very beginnings of life to the age of genetic cloning, from the dinosaurs to the era of space travel. It’s one of the most fascinating, visually arresting history lesson you’ve ever experienced.

Narrated by John Lithgow, the program covers a massive amount of territory without feeling overwhelming. Indeed, “Adventures in Time” sometimes feels like every National Geographic special on humankind and animals spliced into a single reel.

The special is essentially a collection of images from National Geographic’s film and TV archives refashioned into a bold new vision, underscoring the wizardry of writer Kevin McCarey and producer-editors Emmanuel Mairesse and Barry D. Nye. One has to admire the audacity of filmmakers who aim to document virtually every major discovery, development and disaster in the history of the cosmos in a mere two hours. But these guys pull it off with impressive skill.

Show is an eclectic blend of lush nature footage, archaeological overviews and theories, space study and factoids charting the worlds of human evolution and planetary maturation. We see a tomb opened for the first time to reveal a 2,500-year-old, remarkably intact mummy in Egypt. Dramatic footage documents brutal animal behavior that underscores the survival-of-the-fittest law of nature.

There are times when “Adventures in Time” grows a tad too simplistic and platitude-spouting for its own good, inspiring such cliche-speak from Lithgow as, “What kind of world will we leave for our children? Only time will tell.”

But in the main, this is two hours of insight into what the new millennium’s arrival means in the larger scheme. As it turns out, it doesn’t mean a whole helluva lot.

Program is technically flawless in the usual National Geographic way.

Adventures in Time: The National Geographic Millennium Special

NBC; Wed. Dec. 22, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in California, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Egypt, Tibet and numerous other areas by National Geographic TV. Executive producer, Nicolas Noxon; senior producer, Teresa Koenig; supervising producer, Barry D. Nye; producer, Nicholas Stein; writer, Kevin McCarey.

Cast

Narrator: John Lithgow.
Editors, Emmanuel Mairesse, Nye; music, Jay Chattaway. 120 MIN.
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