There are two ways to keep a good TV series from going stale: limit each season to a half dozen well-written episodes as the Brits often do, or like that rare breed of brave TV producers do, plan a series arc that concludes before it collapses. Unfortunately, the History Channel has done neither with its documentary series The Universe. The rapid decline from its first season, which was top-notch engrossing family edutainment, through its lackluster and redundantly meandering second and third seasons should be evident quickly to anyone who bothers to watch the entire forthcoming Blu-ray release of The Universe: Seasons 1-3 in quick succession as I have.
The Universe premiered on the History Channel (now simply History) in the spring of 2007 with a 14-episode season that was outstanding. The first season provided an overview of current scientific knowledge about our solar system and conjecture about extraterrestrial life that was accessible enough to appeal to school-age children but deep enough to also engage adult viewers. The formula for the show's success was state-of-the-art CGI, pitch-perfect up-to-date scientific data, the History Channel's typical bold narration (more on this later), and interesting interviews with charismatic scientists at American universities and federal agencies.
The Universe returned for an 18-episode second season in the fall of 2007, just six months after the first season began. Despite what must have been an uncompromisingly grueling production schedule, the second season had the potential to be as great as the first thanks to the relatively tight focus of the first season on knowledge about our solar system and conjecture about extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, although season two does have some fine episodes about phenomena outside our solar system and some previously unaddressed principles of astrophysics, too often subjects explored in the first season are considered again as if for the first time. Thus, instead of focusing on new subjects or engaging old subjects in greater depth, the series begins repeating itself with ever greater frequency. Speculation about extraterrestrial life, and discussion of the composition and conditions of the moons of our solar system's planets, and the threat of meteor impacts are all recycled.
Last fall, The Universe returned to History for a 12-episode third season which had even fewer high points than season two. Repetition was the general rule. For example, though the danger of terrestrial meteor impacts had already been explored in season one's episode "End of the Earth" and season two's "Unexplained Mysteries" and "Cosmic Collisions", the material was needlessly rehashed for a forth and fifth time in "Deadly Comets and Meteors" and "Stopping Armageddon." And the repetition with regard to the danger of meteors was nothing compared to that given to conjecture about extraterrestrial life which was considered ad nauseum throughout all three seasons, though rarely in a way that added anything to season one's definitive episode "Search for ET". Finally, what new material there is in this season was extremely speculative ("Parallel Universes") or salaciously trivial ("Sex in Space").
After being severely critical of seasons two and three, I'm almost hesitant to say anything that can be considered disparaging about season one lest readers think I'm unduly harsh, but I do feel the need to say something about the narration which is marked by the booming male voice, insistent tone, and purple prose typical of History Channel documentaries. Though I prefer an even-toned narrator reading an intelligently-nuanced script as is more often found on PBS or the BBC, I understand that many viewers disagree. Accordingly, I'll simply provide a couple examples of the purple prose typical of this series' narration and leave it at that:
"Two and a half million light years away, a menacing counterpart to our galaxy sits and swirls casting a wary eye toward the Milky Way. It's the dance partner for our galaxy, our biggest neighbor, and our biggest nemesis. It's called M-31, better known as the Andromeda Galaxy."
"The gravitational dance between the clouds and the Milky Way has likely been going on for billions of years, but all the while a different and much more mysterious battle is going on back in the center of the Milky Way because when you head for the center of our galaxy, once you get through all the dust, and gas, and older stars, you'll find something so insanely frightening the normal rules of time and space do not apply. For lurking at the heart of the Milky Way, and perhaps every alien galaxy, is a massive beast with a ravenous appetite, a beast from which there is no escape."
If that's the kind of narration you enjoy, you're in luck because The Universe has it in spades.
Episode Index (with chapter stop titles): All episodes are 44:30 in length except for the double-length "Beyond the Big Bang" which concludes season one.
- "Secrets of the Sun" (A Celestial Blockbuster, Power of Plasma, Forecasting Solar Threats, A Perfect Solar Storm, Churning Surface of the Sun)
- "Mars: The Red Planet" (So Much Like Earth, Early Speculation, A Closer Look, Life on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity)
- "End of the Earth ("Cosmic Threats, Harmful Rocks, Gamma Ray Bursts, Turning Up the Heat, The Big Rip)
- "Jupiter: The Giant Planet" (A Churning Ball of Gas, The Red Spot, Secrets of Europa, The Magnetic Field, Listening to Jupiter)
- "The Moon" ( Lunar Extremes, Time, Tides and Origins, Lunar Theories, Lunar Samples, Giant Impact Theory)
- "Spaceship Earth" (Impacting on Earth, Crashing into Existence, Origins of Life, Complex Life on Land, Ice Caps in Peril)
- "Mercury and Venus: The Inner Planets" (Earth's Evil Twin Venus, Exploring the Surface, The Terrains of Mercury, Site of Impact, Volcanic Heritage)
- "Saturn: Lord of the Rings" (The Gas Giant, The Mysterious Rings, Exploring Titan, Geysers on Enceladus, Search for Life)
- "Alien Galaxies" (Variety of Galaxies, Forming Galaxies, Gravity and Expansion, Black Holes and Dark Matter, Studying the Galaxies)
- "Life and Death of a Star" (Forces of Gravity, White Dwarfs, All from the Stars, Explosive Collisions, Failed Stars)
- "The Outer Planets" (The Case for Pluto, The Man Who Killed Pluto, Cool Blue Uranus, Windswept Neptune, Moons of Neptune)
- "The Most Dangerous Places" (Dangers of a Magnetar, Black Holes, Super Massive Threats, Galaxy Mergers, Cosmic Monster Quasars)
- "Search for ET" (Life's Basic Chemistry, Europa, Titan, Radio Waves, Intelligent Machines)
- "Beyond the Big Bang" (Einstein's Theory, Expanding Universe, Steady State Theory, The Smoking Gun, Inflation Theory, Imagine the Future)
- "Alien Planets" Types of Worlds, Hot Jupiters, Extreme Weather, Strange Worlds, Super Telescopes)
- "Cosmic Holes" (Wormholes, Time Travel, Black and White Holes, Dueling Black Holes, Tickets to Oblivion)
- "Mysteries of the Moon" (The Lunar Surface, Effects on Behavior, Different Perceptions, What If There Was No Moon, Reflections from the Moon)
- "The Milky Way" (The Neighborhood, Technology, Gas and Dust, Gravity, Expansion
- "Alien Moons" (Many Moons, Jupiter: Moon Magnet, Icy and Molten Moons, Irregular Moons, Variety of the Solar System)
- "Dark Matter/Dark Energy" (Elusive Dark Matter, The Search for Wimps, Backbone of the Visible World, Creating Space, Mysteries of the Dark Side)
- "Astrobiology" (Origins of Life on Earth, Life on Mars, Liquid Water, Planets with Oxygen, Intelligent Life)
- "Space Travel" (Days of Space Travel, Limits of Time, Through the Looking Glass, the Fabric of Space and Time, Going Beyond)
- "Supernovas" (Agent of Change, Exploding Stars, Core Collapse, Greatest Supernovas, Sweeping the Sky)
- "Constellations" (Distance Between Stars, The Changing Night Sky, Astronomy, Companion Stars, Star Motion)
- "Unexplained Mysteries" (Earth's Mass Extinctions, Time Travel, Antimater, Water on Mars, The Big Bang)
- "Cosmic Collisions" (Collision Families, Collisions in Our Solar System, Mass Extinctions, Permo-Triassic Extinctions, Galaxy Collisions)
- "Colonizing Space" (Mars Direct, Hazards of Travel, Planetary Pioneers, Martian Base, Terraforming)
- "Nebulas" (Imaging, Formation, Hubble Palette, Shapes, Supermova Remnants)
- "Wildest Weather in the Cosmos" (Motions in the Atmosphere, Winds, Tornados, Rain, Biggest Storms)
- "Biggest Things in Space" (Superclusters, Galaxies, Diameter, Mass, Asteroids)
- "Gravity" (Effects of Mass, Secrets of Gravity, Using Graviy, Artificial Gravity, G-Waves)
- "Cosmic Apocalypse" (Fire and Ice, When the Lights Go Out, Dying Embers, Black Hole Era, Bubble of Hope)
- "Deep Space Disasters" (Space Elevator, Space Colonists, Atronauts Outside, Space Collisions)
- "Parallel Universes" (Multiple Universes, Cosmic Bubbles, Other Dimensions, Evidence, Travel Between Universes)
- "Light Speed"
(Limits, Measuring Distance, Theory of Relativity, Slowing Down Light Speed, Star Travel)
- "Sex in Space"
(The 2suit, Gravity & Fertilization, Taboo, Advantages & Disadvantages, Space Tourism)
- "Alien Faces"
(Life beyond Earth, What They'd Look Like, World with Lower Gravity, Water Worlds, Machines)
- "Deadly Comets and Meteors"
(Dangerous Impacts, Icy Bodies, Asteroids and Comets, Jupiter: Planetary Shield, Ongoing Threats)
- "Living in Space"
(Mankind's Second Home, Transportation Space Suits, Space Farmers, Harvesting Asteroids)
- "Stopping Armageddon"
(Detection, Mitigation, Lasers, Gravity Tractor, When to Act)
- "Another Earth"
(Theory, Habitable Zones, Super Earths, Alpha Centauri, Kepler Mission)
- "Strangest Things"
(Molecular Clouds, Exoplanets, Meutrinos, Ulirgs, Dark Matter)
- "Edge of Space"
(Space Diving, Earth Orbit, Space Debris, Genesis Spacecraft, Sun Dancer)
- "Cosmic Phenomena"
(Auroras, Cosmic Rays, The Sun, Ultraviolet Rays, Rainbows)
This ten-disc release of The Universe: Seasons 1-3 simply adds a thin cardboard case to house the three individual season sets in their original retail packaging. Each season is housed separately in an attractive double-width Blu-ray case.
This release is presented in 1080i widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio). Although the archival material is of varying quality, the new material is all of fairly good quality. Color and brightness are excellent and detail is about average for 1080i video-sourced material. Given that the DVD release is non-anamorphic letterbox, this Blu-ray release is a significant improvement.
Optional English subtitles are provided on seasons two and three, but not season one.
The PCM stereo track is function but not impressive. Voices are clear, and the track is free of dropouts or distortions, but the lack of a lossless 5.1 mix is disappointing.
The extras are meager. Season two includes a lackluster hour-long documentary about amateur astronomy aptly titled Backyard Astronomers, and season three includes an onscreen library of two dozen brief facts about the Universe and a gallery of thirty-three photographs and CG images.
The Universe is a science-based family edutainment documentary series that enjoyed one strong season, but which quickly lost its way in endless repetition. Despite this, perhaps the series would continue to be tolerable if seen over a period of many months by viewers who skipped episodes here and there, but it fails as a product for home video consumption over a short time period. My advice is to buy season one, but to wait a few months after completing it before even considering whether to rent the later ones.