In case it escaped your notice, the universe is a mighty big place, and History Channel's literally awesome series The Universe is similarly wide in scope. This boxed set of 14 episodes is optimistically titled "The Complete Season One," though the first season is so exhaustive, at least with regard to planets and systems "close" to us (obviously a relative term), it will be interesting to see where the series goes figuratively and literally, as it moves beyond its freshman year.
As with virtually all History Channel documentaries, the series is impeccably well-researched and features a host of expert talking heads interspersed with some jaw-dropping visuals. All of the planets of our solar system either get their own individual episodes (as in the case of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn) or are lumped together by general proximity (The Outer Planets and The Inner Planets). But the series ventures beyond mere space geography to touch on subjects like the search for intelligent life beyond our planet (never mind the naysayers who claim there is no intelligent life on our planet), how life itself started with the big bang (and how that bang continues to this day) and, in its literally furthest-reaching episode (at least distance wise), galaxies beyond our own homey Milky Way.
While the series has its share of older source videos (i.e., the moon landings, etc.), there's a host of newer footage from such relatively recent planetary expeditions like the Mars Rover. Likewise, while some information will be well-known to most (e.g., why eclipses happen), there's an engaging amount of new information imparted and usually in entertaining and easy to understand allegories, as when Jupiter is compared to a protective older sibling saving little brother Earth from space-age bully asteroids through its gravitational "Frisbee effect."
The series excels at giving visual representations of sometimes complex ideas. For example, when explaining the burning capacity of the sun, video of trees being felled are shown as the narrator describes how many billions of cords of wood would be needed to equal the sun's flaming fury. Unerringly good visual presentation is the hallmark of this series, as well as some unusual choices for expert commentary (such as the frankly babelicious solar expert who demonstrates principles of nuclear fusion by playing pool).
There's an abundant use of excellent computer generated imagery as well as unbelievable source film of the planets themselves. Some footage of events like solar flares and barren moonscapes is quite simply stunning. There's also such an abundant use of detailed information that re-viewing is virtually required, something enjoyable due to the excellent visuals.
In a series like this that is virtually chock-full of information, it's hard to single out a single episode for special accolades, but "The Search for ET" stands out as one of the most compelling and thought-provoking of the series, as it explores the chances that we may find life beyond our solar system. Starting with yet another excellent visual metaphor, in an attempt to show how close the nearest life may be to us, the show "shrinks" the sun to the size of a marble on the sidewalk of Manhattan, which places Earth a few feet away. That would make the nearest possible intelligent life, metaphorically speaking at this scale, in Washington, D.C., which, while geographically true, may leave some more acerbic critics of our political scene laughing that anyone should suggest intelligent life, metaphorical or otherwise, exists in our nation's capital. The exploration then goes into the history of how life evolved on our planet, before it branches out into what other lifeforms may be like, whether that be cute little green creatures a la our Spielbergian fantasies, or perhaps something more sinister.
Though there is a somewhat redundant emphasis on gloom and doom elements (deep space threats to the earth, the eventual burnout of the sun in a mere 5 billion years, not to mention "The Big Rip," expected in only another 50 billion years, when the universe will have expanded so much that it will rip itself to shreds, including us helpless humans), bringing to mind the History Channel's ubiquitous Nostradamus specials, The Universe is a compelling and thought-provoking look at the vast spatial wilderness in which we all find ourselves.
A very sharp, though unenhanced 1.78:1 image is extremely easy on the eyes. Use your zoom feature if you have one, you'll want this image to fill the corners of your HDTV.
A perfectly acceptable stereo soundtrack provides all the necessary information, with some good use of sound effects. Narration is unfailingly front and center, with the occasional augmenting sound effect either placed back center or panned according to its visual source.
None are offered.
The Universe offers a wealth of information about matters big and, well, bigger (and actually quite small, as in the case of subatomic particles that dot the foundation of all matter) as it explores not only the planets that are in our general neck of the woods, but also ideas and basic principles that color modern astronomy and creation theory. This is a must-have for any student or lover of things "out there," and should delight all amateur telescope hounds everywhere.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet