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Wonders of the Solar System Review

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by AVForums May 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    It is all twitter's fault. There was a lot of really good television on in the early part of this year, and I really didn't need my V+ box filling up even more than it already was. I was completely unable to keep up with the TV I wanted to watch as it was. Then my twitfeed started to fill up with what was universal praise for a new series called ”Wonders of the Universe”. I was sceptical. After all, even though I hadn't ever seen him, the insistence of the main presenter to use his official title of Professor at every given opportunity was really grating to me. But as the week went on, the praise continued. Eventually I went on iPlayer and watched the first episode in HD. I was immediately hooked and set the series link. When the opportunity arose to review the disc I jumped at the chance. The series looked excellent on BBC HD - and I was looking forward to what a Blu-ray release with an enhanced soundtrack would look and sound like.


    Professor (yuck) Brian Cox is about as close to a rock star academic as it is possible to get. In fact, in his case he takes the description rather literally - having once played keyboards in D-Ream (Things Can Only Get Better). He is impossibly youthful (I couldn't believe he is older than me at 42), married to a blogger / producer (Gia Milinovich), has worked on big budget movies (Sunshine, and is often making guest appearances in the media.


    For all of the above, I was prepared to dislike him - but once I started watching the series I warmed to his personality immediately. I found him an engaging presence, coming across as approachable and understandable, yet intelligent. Never does he talk down to the viewer. I have spoken to many people about the series, and only one person took a dislike to the presenter. Everyone else has universal praise. A 22 year old friend of mine described him as “the science teacher he wished he had had” and my 70 year old Dad described him as a “most personable young man”. It is this universal appeal which is at the heart of the success of the series.


    The series is an attempt to describe the inner workings of our solar system, with Cox picking out his chosen “wonders” of said system at various points during the series. There are five episodes in the series in total, three on the first disc and two on the second. The first disc contains Empire of the Sun which looks at the formation of the sun and its effects on the whole solar system. Order out of Chaos looks at Saturn, and in particular its rings, and The Thin Blue Line looks at our atmosphere. The second disc contains Dead or Alive which looks at the turbulence of planet surfaces with particular reference to the moon Io, and the final episode Aliens which looks at the possibility of the existence of, well, aliens!


    The way the story is told is very refreshing. I was expecting tonnes of CGI, but in fact this technique is only used sparingly and when absolutely necessary. Even when it is used, it is beautifully integrated. One memorable sequence shows a series of shots of the sun rising on various planets. Obviously many are made of CGI, but when we get to Mars it is revealed that the hyper-real image we are looking at is actually genuine - taken by a probe. It is fascinating stuff and I was completely fooled.


    Instead of overdosing on CGI, the technique used is that of going to places on earth that are likely to be close to the environments that Cox is talking about on the planet concerned. So, when discussing the ancient valleys on Mars that look like they were carved by water - Cox presents from an ancient long-dried up river bed on earth. Photos of the environment he is in are juxtaposed with photos of the same environment on Mars to illustrate his point. It is a very clever approach and it works very very well.


    What is particularly impressive about the series is its refusal to dumb down and talk down to the audience. Cox always manages to appear immensely enthusiastic and gets his point across in clear concise, yet intelligent ways. Most noticeable is the scene when he is explaining why the orbit of Mars appears so irregular from earth, using a few rocks that happen to be lying around. Or when he is in a diner in America and various condiments are press ganged into representing asteroids, the earth, and other celestial bodies - “And this is my coffee. It represents nothing. “


    This combination of intelligence and approachability is one that Cox has to perfection, and is not one I can recall any other presenter attaining. The subject matter that is presented is, by necessity, complex and difficult to understand at times - but Cox always demystifies complex theories bringing them to life for the audience. He is always prepared to venture into alien environments himself (inside a toxic volcano, or at the bottom of an ocean trench for example), in order to illustrate a point and to provide the exciting visuals to accompany the narrative.


    The BBC have produced many notable documentaries over the years, mainly from the Natural History unit. Life on Earth, Planet Earth and others of that ilk have rightly been regarded as classics. It is my opinion that Wonders of the Universe is easily up there in terms of quality with the very best that the BBC have produced during their illustrious history. Maybe because of the subject matter, it won't gain the status of those seminal series - but it certainly deserves to. This is a landmark series for the BBC which is near perfect in its execution. If you missed it on TV, then you really should make it your mission to seek it out on Blu-ray. If you did see it on TV you are going to want to know how the AV and extras stack up on this disc. For that, you want the next page.