Have you ever looked up at the night sky? I mean, did you ever take a really good look at it? If not, do yourself a favor: Hop in your car, drive yourself to the mountains (where the night sky isn't tainted by city lights), grab a telescope or even a pair of binoculars, and take it all in. I know it's a little clichéd to say such an experience can make you realize how truly insignificant we are, but with everything we can see, even with our naked eyes - the moon, the stars, shooting stars, planets, etc. - how could we not feel that way? There's so many gadgets, gizmos, and even ideologies on our planet that do a pretty decent job at keeping critical thinking amongst the masses at a bare minimum, but if more and more people took the opportunity to just look up every once in a while, perhaps that would all change. To lay on a blanket in the middle of nowhere while trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe is a humbling, yet incredibly relaxing experience, but for everything we're unable to figure out based on our amateurish observations from Earth, History's televised marvel The Universe has been there to unlock those mysteries. But, has the show finally worn out its welcome in its fourth season?
The first and second seasons of The Universe are, without question, vital additions to any science enthusiast's home video collection. Each episode had all the information you could want about the subject matter and so much more. Of course, any discussion regarding a topic as broad as 'space' couldn't have worked without some speculative context, so theoretical 'what ifs' and 'why nots' were sprinkled throughout each episode as well. Despite the fact each episode was loaded to the brim with facts about our solar system and beyond, its presentation was never overwhelming or dry. These episodes collectively featured so many facts about the universe however, that the third season had little choice but to resort to exploring the 'what ifs' to a larger extent than ever before. Although my friends (yes, us science-folk have friends) and even professional critics didn't have too many kind things to say about the third season, I actually enjoyed it immensely. So what if the third season didn't exactly provide the same educational experience as the first two? Personally, I think that speculation and theory are very important aspects of science, if not the most important. It's exciting to question the unknown, and that excitement is the very thing that keeps the most important thing we need to keep scientific exploration alive - critical thinking. That being said, I was a little concerned that another season with a science-fiction approach might have been overkill...
...and overkill it was. The fourth season goes to astronomically desperate lengths to appeal to its core audience, but I think those behind The Universe may have forgotten the intended audience was supposed to be everyone. This series was seemingly founded on a desire to teach the deep intricacies of space to a wide audience, by presenting hardcore scientific facts in a simplistic and entertaining manner, but now? It's practically Star Trek convention fodder. I mean, we're subjected to theories about teleportation, if any variation of warp speed is feasible, and how devastating weapons in space might be utilized. These may be interesting topics in a 'food for thought' sort of way, but it only helps to highlight the fact that this series is quickly running out of ideas. Hell, one only needs to see the episode listing to understand what I'm talking about - "Death Stars" and "Space Wars"... need I say more?
However, this season isn't a complete failure by any means. We very well might have to thank the moon as a species for our existence on Earth, because without it, we wouldn't be here right now. "The Day the Moon Was Gone" shows us how unstable our planet would have been if that craterous mass wasn't there to shine down on us night after night, and if you ask me, it wasn't only the most intriguing episode of the season, it's one of the best in the entirety of the series to date. Other episodes also explain to us how the universe is constantly able to maintain a perfect energetic equilibrium, how star clusters can tell us about the structure of the universe itself, how Pulsars and Quasars might be able to clue us in as to how galaxies are formed, and why a star that's 8,000 light-years away from Earth has the potential to wipe us out of existence. History's The Universe might be losing steam, but when it latches on to a topic that's actually worth discussing, this show is still able to deliver, and knock a topic out of orbit.
In the middle of the very good and the very bad however, are some blatantly useless filler episodes. Between exploring ten possible ways the Earth could be destroyed, examining both natural and manmade objects that fall through our atmosphere on a regular basis, examples of the biggest blasts to ever happen within the universe, and even learning about Earth's man made 'ring', one can't help but wonder why they didn't just opt to continue the series with fewer, but stronger episodes per season. I know they've already done that once (they went from 18 to 12 in the transition from seasons 2 and 3), but this season could have been quite a bit stronger if there were only 5 or 6 episodes in total.
All in all, this is still worth watching for the few interesting episodes there are, but for those of you that have been waiting for the series to return to the quality on display in the first few seasons, you're probably going to be disappointed.
The Universe - The Complete Season Four makes its way onto Blu-ray with a 1080i, 1.78:1 presentation via the AVC codec. This show looks pretty impressive when it's aired on History HD, and this Blu-ray is a decent upgrade from broadcast, although not a substantial one. Colors are lush, contrast is spot on most of the time, there are no majorly distracting artifacts or edge enhancement to speak of, and detail is superb. However, there's some noticeable banding on occasion, and black levels have a tendency to look a little brighter than they should at times. Other than that, this is a pretty stellar video presentation, at least as far as a release from History is concerned. This isn't top-tier high-def material, but fans of the series shouldn't be disappointed.
The only thing this season set has to offer is a lossless PCM 2.0 track. Everything sounds fine and dandy - The dialogue is always clear and distinguishable, and the music is a bit more realistic sounding than I expected for a stereo track. The big problem I have with this track isn't in its technical representation (because it represents the source very well), but with the sound mix itself. The Universe is probably the best series History has had to offer in a very long time, if not ever, so you would think they'd bump it up a notch and provide some surround sound. Unfortunately that's not the case, but again, for those of you that are fans of the series as is, you won't find a bad representation of the source here.
The only supplemental material on this release comes in the form of unaired segments. Meteors: Fire in the Sky and Comets: Prophets of Doom are interesting enough I suppose, but these aren't exactly intriguing space 'oddities'. Meteors and comets have been done so many times via the likes of History and Discovery, that these bonus segments have no worthwhile impact at all. Go ahead and skip them, you won't be missing out on much.
The Universe - The Complete Season Four has a few magnificent episodes that could easily remind one of the good ole' days from seasons past, but the rest is either fluff or just too 'sci-fi' to complement the original intent of the series. The Star Trek-like theories have made me feel from time to time that the creators are desperate to hang on to any semblance of a fan base they might have left, but in doing so, they've basically alienated the rest of the casual viewers that might have found the first couple of seasons a lot easier to swallow. The rest of this release is fairly lackluster as well. The video quality is pretty darn good when compared to an over the air broadcast, but a stereo mix and a lack of interesting extras add to the disappointment. Fans of the show should rent it, but for those of you unfamiliar with the series, you'd be better off picking up the first season, when the show was at its prime.