The Universe has been popping up on The History Channel for four years now and while the early episodes were pretty fascinating, those who have been following the series since then probably know that at this point, the series isn't quite as strong as it was. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of good material here, because there is, but there isn't as much of it as the first and second season had to offer. Regardless, those who enjoy scientific explanations of all that our universe has to offer should still find enough to enjoy here to make it worthwhile.
Here's a quick look at the twelve episodes that make up the complete fourth season of the series (each episode runs roughly forty-five minutes in length):
Death Stars: This episode examines what could potentially happen if a star millions of miles away from the earth were to burn out and how it might affect life on our planet. There's a whole lot of speculation in this episode, a lot of 'what if' scenarios and the penchant for creating an apocalyptic scenario comes off as rather sensationalist.
The Day The Moon Was Gone Along the same lines as the first episode is this second episode that pontificates on what would happen to us if the Moon were to get knocked out of orbit. In addition to that it makes some odd speculations about what would have happened to us if the Moon had never been there in the first place. Again, it all feels a little sensationalist but it's at least more interesting than the first episode was.
It Fell From Space: This third episode is the best on the first disc. It explains how and why meteorites, asteroids, and comets, fly around out there in space and sometimes crash into the earth. Interestingly enough, it also covers what could possibly happen to all of those abandoned space stations and rockets and other assorted creations that humans have left floating around in the cosmos. It is, again, an apocalyptically themed episode with plenty of talk about how we'll eventually get pounded by various space objects in the future, but it does back things up with a bit more fact.
Biggest Blasts: This episode takes a look at possible massive explosions that may tear our galaxy, and other galaxies, a new one. Oddly it recycles a fair bit from episodes seen on the first disc. Commentary from a scientist or two explains how and why they worry that these massive space explosions can and will occur, and why we should be afraid of them ending our world and possibly a few others at the same time.
The Hunt For Ringed Planets: This considerably happier episode, the first of the season, explains how astronomers long believed Saturn to be the only ringed planet in our solar system but how recent discoveries show that may not necessarily be the case. From there we learn how planets get rigs around them, what makes up the content of those rings, and how the typography of those planets takes shape. It's pretty interesting stuff and it's nice to know that these rings don't in any way appear to be able to blow up the Earth or send all of us to certain doom.
10 Ways To Destroy The Earth: With that happiness out of the way, let's get back to possible ways we can all die! Gamma rays, asteroids, changes in our orbit and plenty of other threats are out there and should have all of us living in fear, apparently. More doomsday scenarios are covered and dissected - it doesn't appear we have much of a chance.
The Search For Cosmic Clusters:
The third disc starts off on an interesting note as it explains how clusters of stars can come together to form solar systems and help create planets and galaxies. This is all handled through a journey on a virtual spaceship that takes us around the galaxy and shows us, through the wonders of animation, how this can happen. It's quite interesting and beautiful in its own odd sort of way.
Space Wars: Another episode that, at this point in time at least, is almost entirely science fiction rather than science fact, covers what war might be like a century from now. By propelling us a hundred years into a theoretical future, we meet up with a group of moon colonists who have had it with the folks back on Earth and who then launch an attack against us. Lots of lasers are used but so too are nuclear weapons.
Liquid Universe: Although our planet is largely made up of water, liquid is generally quite rare out there in the far reaches of space. We learn, through some scientific explanations, how there's a whole lot of gas out there and how liquid can effect a planet, how a certain moon actually has a lake made out of methane gas on its surface and how other planets have bodies made entirely out of liquid hydrogen. Interesting stuff that makes you appreciate the oceans, lakes and rivers we often don't think about just a little bit more than you might otherwise.
Pulsars And Quasars: This truly enlightening and fascinating episode covers what Pulsars and Quasars actually are, why they matter, how they affect the universe around us and how they were discovered. This is the mix of education, fancy graphics, theorizing and talking head interviews that the better episodes of the series really benefit from, making this episode one of the stand outs of this fourth season simply because it explains the reality of its subject rather than speculating on various aspects of it.
Science Fiction/Science Fact: This is another interesting episode that lets different scientists discuss elements popular and common in various aspects of science fiction and talk about how technology has or has not advanced to the point where some of these ideas could become a reality. It may sound like a fairly typical sci-fi guy discussion but it's approached intelligently and never gets so highbrow as to alienate anyone, while at the same time it never downplays things either. The end result is an interesting examination of where things could be headed and why.
Extreme Energy: The last episode of the season is another decent one, as it explains how everything in our universe relates to a form of energy. We learn how this energy can change form, become matter, and evolve and how some of it can effect the planets around it. Learning how all of this correlates to common, every day things we use and need like household electricity is actually pretty darn cool.
Disappointingly (though all too common with releases from The History Channel), the material in this set is presented in 1.78.1 non-anamorphic widescreen, and on top of that, the transfers are interlaced. The episodes themselves are very clean looking and don't show any wear, tear or debris, though the transfers here are pretty erratic. Some shots look excellent and show nice, crisp - others not so much, it all kind of depends on what the source material for each shot was as this series is put together from a mix of stock footage taken from various sources and newly created material. The fact that this series looks as good as it does when it airs on the History Channel's HD channel makes this hokey non-anamorphic interlaced picture a bit of a slap in the face. This fourth season was also released on Blu-ray, presumably in better quality.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks that are included here are about on par with the video in that they're sufficient but not particularly impressive. There isn't much in the way of channel separation here - it happens infrequently, though it's not entirely absent, it occurs mainly with the score which is spread out well. Dialogue is always easy to understand and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to complain about. While this mix isn't really all that impressive, unlike the video it is at least sufficient.
Aside from menus and episode selection, there are two extra segments: Meteors: Fire In The Sky (9:32) and Comets: Prophets Of Doom (3:17). These are very brief and don't go into much detail on their topics.
This fourth season of The Universe is a mixed bag. For every truly interesting episode we get a doomsday scenario that seems more interested in presenting a tabloid style apocalypse than enlightening its audience, but the good material is very good. The presentation on this DVD release, however, is pretty low-tech and the disappointed transfer makes it hard to recommended. That said, there's enough here that's worth seeing that this makes for a decent rental for any curious viewers intrigue by the content.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.