The Universe Review

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by Casimir Harlow Dec 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    I'm guessing if you've clicked on a link to a review about the second season of The Universe, you probably caught some of the first season. Following on in the same vein as quality productions like The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, The Universe tackles space and everything in it. If you want a vague idea of how broad this subject can be, in one of the episodes they discuss the size of the Milky Way and say that if the entire Solar System were the size of a CD, the Milky Way would be the size of the Earth in relation to said CD. Suffice to say this is a big topic. The first season of The Universe mainly focussed on the formation, study, and creation of the Solar System, including its eight main planets, utilising just 13 episodes (each just shy of 50 minutes) to take us through the celestial bodies in our Solar System, as well briefly look beyond. After its success, and given the potential that the subject matter has, a second season was commissioned (and we are now on our fourth season) to continue the voyage into the vast reaches of space, this time offering up 18 full-length instalments.

    “What is the mysterious dark matter pervading the universe? How would we colonise an alien world? Could wormholes unlock the galaxy for mankind?”

    Season 2 immediately kick-starts with Alien Planets, also looking at Alien Moons and at the Milky Way in its entirety. It details those more scientifically challenging topics of Cosmic Holes - Black Holes have challenged even the minds of the like of Einstein, and here you can see why - and the potential for space(and time) travel encountered therein. Dark Matter further looks at the more difficult-to-explain subject areas within the galaxy, whilst the episode Unexplained Mysteries is fairly blunt in its promotion of a difficult topic. Nebulas might interest all those who enjoyed the finale of Wrath of Khan, and we get several more 'personal' subject-matters of relevance, which look at things a little bit closer to home, from Mysteries of the Moon (which expands on the season 1 episode on The Moon), Space Travel and Colonizing Space.

    Although it still feels like they have barely touched the tip of the iceberg, this second season does well to expand on what was offered up in the first, and does so in the same style. Of course, what this means is that we get both the good and the bad - a high volume of facts and statistics, far too many analogies, and an annoying number of 'threats to our planet' moments, where the contributors try and make the subject more interesting by pitching it as something out of Michael Bay's Armageddon. The Contributors include many familiar faces, as well as a few new ones (the belly-dancing star-gazer is hilarious), and you still basically get a third of an episode worth of decent information, surrounded in a bunch of padding and overwhelming statistics.

    Personally I wanted to love the episodes on Black Holes and Dark Matter, but the former proved a little bit disappointing as it was a perfect subject - it would seem - for all those over-the-top contributors to gush forth about time travel and changing history and the damage that that would do. Back at University I remember having an irritating Cybernetics professor, who unabashedly plagiarised all of his study assistants' work and cashed in on all of the paranoid conspiracy interest surrounding the 'threat' of artificial intelligence. He knew that these kinds of topics would sell books, basically writing about the kind of future you would only expect out of the Terminator movie series, but only positing it as fact. It was ridiculously over-the-top and played on readers' inner conspiracy-theorist fears, but it had about as much basis in reality as the 'theory' that if you leave monkeys alone long enough they will write the complete works of Shakespeare. I don't care if the theory is sound, it has no place in our society, nor in any time-frame that ours, or the next ten generations, would be affected by. The same is true with some of the scare-tactics involved in this show. I'm much more interested in learning about the vast reaches of space, and the almost never-ending potential within, and less interested in the one-in-a-billion chance that something might happen somewhere that might somehow affect our planet in some kind of way.

    Thankfully many of the second season topics are often too far reaching to allow for too much exaggeration-in-the-name-of-entertainment, and thus this season feels slightly more scientifically rational than the previous one, catering not just for laypersons with regards to these high-brow subject areas, but also no doubt to some professors and experts - who would no doubt absorb every single one of the theories, space calculations and 'unexplained phenomenon' on their first viewing of it. As a direct result, this one will appeal less to kids - still having that 'Christmas Lectures' style to it, but when were the UK Christmas Lectures ever really viable teaching platforms for kids?

    The Universe is far from a perfect documentary series but, that said, its subject matter is inherently quite difficult to explore in the usual sense of the word. Where Blue Planet and Planet Earth have used technology to bring the Earth to life in a very much photographic way, The Universe aims to bring the far reaches of outer space to our very own living room, and since much of the universe remains largely unphotographed, the only way of showing this to the average viewer is by means of CG and theoretical analysis. On this front, the series succeeds against all odds, providing an interesting, engaging and informative look at such a vast subject matter, even if it uses too many analogies, too many statistics and a little bit too much 'threat analysis' to get its message across.

    This 4-disc box-set contains the complete 18-episode sophomore season. The Episode list is as follows :

    1. Alien Planets
    2. Cosmic Holes
    3. Mysteries of the Moon
    4. The Milky Way
    5. Alien Moons
    6. Dark Matter
    7. Astrobiology
    8. Space Travel
    9. Supernovas
    10. Constellations
    11. Unexplained Mysteries
    12. Cosmic Collisions
    13. Colonising Space
    14. Nebulas
    15. Wildest Weather in the Cosmos
    16. Biggest Things in Space
    17. Gravity
    18. Cosmic Apocalypse

    The Rundown

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