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The Universe Review

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by Casimir Harlow Nov 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    It might seem difficult to believe, but you can learn a great deal from movies. I'm not just talking about the better history-based movies like Master and Commander, Elizabeth or Gandhi, but also those that take great liberties with history (Gibson's fictional duo Braveheart and The Patriot), those that are just period pieces, and even those that merely have a passing nod to history (like Indy). The reason why all these offerings can enlighten you is that they can make some viewers go away and ask questions. Find the truth behind the fiction, read up on the full history, it may seem crazy but - depending on how inquisitive you are - movies can be a great source, or at very least spark, for education. Hey, don't get me wrong, don't cancel your classes just yet as movies are no substitute for a formal education, but I've always found that fictional work has grabbed my attention more than non-fiction - and I have, consequently, learned and remembered more. Whether it be Hotel Rwanda or Tears of the Sun, or even 24: Redemption, sometimes you can pick up a great deal more from fiction than news or documentaries. Whether it is the method by which you are being fed the information (i.e by means of a story), or just because it is more entertaining, the information within can be easier to digest and remember.

    There are some aspects of our planet - and our universe - that are inherently more intriguing than others, however, and these, thanks to BBC and History Channel Documentaries, have managed to provide maximum information within the confines of what is an entertaining and digestible offering. The amazing Blue Planet series allowed us to explore the great blue unknown on Earth itself - the oceans - and the life within. Now History's The Universe takes us into space and allows us to look at things sci-fi fans have always dreamt about - Mars, Black Holes, planet-destroying asteroids - in a very accessible way, and making use of the latest CG technology to give us an accurate impression of things that we could have never previously explored within the comforts of our own living rooms.

    “What caused the Big Bang? What happens when a star dies? What might life be like on an alien planet?”

    Answering these and many more questions, The Universe takes us through our known universe and beyond, exploring all of the major planets (including our own), the Sun and the Moon, and also looking at stars and foreign galaxies. It attempts to teach us about each of these subjects in a fair amount of detail, with endless snippets from a bevy of enthusiastic scientists interspersing CG imaginings of the theories, together with some real imagery and discussions of real space technology. The effects are not exactly comparable to the likes of the new Star Wars film, or the glorious planets created for the Star Wars prequels, but they do a good job of illustrating the lengthy talks on the subjects, and certainly make the whole package more interesting.

    Each episode has the same basic style, with a short prologue - including some soundbites - introducing you to the subject of the forthcoming chapter, and then an overview of the matter, followed by closer looks at more specific aspects of the subject. The majority of the footage comes with narration, which takes us step-by-step through the visuals on offer and basically gives us the majority of the high-content information, the scientists - experts in cosmology (the study of the universe in its grandest terms, often regarded as theoretical astronomy on a much larger scale), astronomy (the study of celestial bodies such as stars, planets, comets and galaxies) and astrophysics (the part of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe) - popping up to give their penny's-worth on any one particular subject.

    Despite my initial reservations about the presentation - it is very reminiscent of satires like Brass Eye in terms of flashy, often pointless, imagery (the opening credits are straight out of Brass Eye) - and despite my not liking some of the contributors, who are sometimes a little too enthusiastic for their own good, there is a lot to be gleaned from watching the episodes in this series. I'm not entirely sure who the series is aimed at - they often describe things in such simplistic terms that you wonder whether they are appealing to upper primary school kids, but then later delve into such detail that you clearly realise that this is an adults-only affair. It reminded me of the Christmas Lectures in the UK (only obviously with a bunch of Americans) in that children could obviously watch it, and it clearly seems designed for children (the audience is packed with them) but the information on offer is so weighty and non-stop that few but those budding astrophysicists amidst our ranks would survive the journey. And that's what The Universe is like. A 45-minute long episode, with 30 minutes of facts, 20 minutes of which are relevant, with only 15 of them being interesting. On the positive side of this, you still get 15 minutes of solid information that is really worth knowing.

    The show also falls down slightly because of over-saturation with statistics, giving you far too many, far too often. It's always 'this is the size of 850 football pitches' or 'if you imagine a star 100 times the size of the earth completely covered in the loudest rock concerts you have ever been to then that is the kind of sound you are looking at'. I know that this is inherent in a subject so theoretical but the reality is that we can't actually imagine things of this scale or nature. It's too much, and bombarding us with comparative statistics - a different one every single minute - just does not work, leaving you tired within just a few minutes of paying your fullest attention. After 15 minutes of any episode you will likely feel you've watched half-an-hour, making me wonder whether better thought-out, less flashy and more condensed 30-minute episodes would have been a better way to go for the series.

    The second major problem is that this is a very 'conspiracy theorist'-style production. I guess they were trying to make things more interesting, but almost every episode includes some dramatic threat to the earth, some ludicrous statistic about how much danger we are in - complete with over-the-top dramatic music and soundbites from overly enthusiastic experts who believe that this really is a threat. Or perhaps think that it will be much more interesting if they make it sound that way. Should we really be worried if the Sun is going to run out of steam in several BILLION years?! A solar flare hit the earth twenty years ago and took out a power transformer somewhere in Canada. Big deal. I'm not going to sit around wondering when the next one will strike, or whether it might take out the power on my street for a few days. Because the power company can do that without the help of celestial bodies. Apparently there's one asteroid circling the Earth, which if it passes the Earth at the exact distance of 18893 miles, may pass through a gravitational keyhole, which may 'upset' the asteroid's trajectory and cause it to return seven years later (presumably for revenge?) when it may hit the earth. So that leaves us with an asteroid which has a one in FORTY FIVE THOUSAND chance of hitting the earth in 2036. Again, no need for the dramatic score there, Roland Emmerich hasn't gotten around to making a movie called 2036 yet, he's still waiting to see if 2012 comes true.

    Without being too sarcastic, what I am basically saying is that The Universe does not need to go over-the-top in its dramatisation of the potential disaster that could be caused to be of interest. I'd much rather learn about what created the sun and the planets, how long they will last, what causes their environments, whether or not the sun will run out of energy, or even how astronomers hundreds of years ago spotted straight lines on Mars and - because straight lines do not usually occur in nature - assumed this to be a sign of extraterrestrial life, rather than hear the anorexically thin chance of something insane happening to the Earth over the course of the next hundred years. Save those bits for the movies.

    Still, as I've said, if you boil it down to its basics, what the series gives you is a quarter-hour's worth of useful, interestingly presented information padded out in a marginally flashy, over-the-top three-quarter-hour episode that comes packed with a few too many statistics, comparisons, analogies and crazy theories for you to take totally seriously. That's actually not that bad for a documentary TV series when you think about it, and at least it will likely sustain interest, even if you find yourself having to take breaks (which is something this Blu-ray set lends itself to).

    This 3-disc box-set contains the complete 13-episode first season, which primarily focuses on the formation, study, and creation of the solar systems, including its eight main planets. Episode list:

    1. Secrets of the Sun
    2. Mars: The Red Planet
    3. The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats to Our Planet
    4. Jupiter: The Giant Planet
    5. The Moon: Spaceship Earth
    6. The Inner Planets
    7. Mercury & Venus
    8. Saturn: Lord of the Rings
    9. Alien Galaxies
    10. Life and Death of a Star
    11. The Outer Planets
    12. The Most Dangerous Place in the Universe
    13. Search for ET
    14. Bonus Extended Episode: Beyond the Big Bang

    The Rundown

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